The history, manufacture and social significance of southern and eastern African textiles.
Textiles are the most obvious visible signifier of culture throughout Africa. The history, beliefs, politics, fashions, status and aspirations of people are communicated through the colours and patterns of textiles and the occasions on which they are worn or otherwise utilised. These textile traditions are part of a historical and contemporary global trading network driven by African taste and patronage, and they are a constant source of inspiration for artists.
The wearing of shweshwe was introduced to black southern Africans in the mid 19th century by the charismatic King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) of the Sotho people. Although a standard range of patterns has remained popular in southern Africa, innovations are regularly introduced, some inspired by traditional mural motifs, others by introducing images such as this of another dynamic southern African statesman, Nelson Mandela.
This capulana commemorates Josina Machel (1945–70) ‘the late lamented mother of the nation’. She was a key figure in the Mozambican independence struggle, marrying Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president. She bore him a child, Samora Junior ‘Samito’, but tragically died at the age of twenty-five. She campaigned for women’s emancipation in Mozambique and established a visionary social services programme.
This cloth celebrates the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Long a popular sport, football is an increasingly important factor in African life and politics and is also providing African players and the countries they represent with a positive global profile. African textile traditions, always a barometer for popular taste and opinions in Africa, inevitably reflect this powerful current.
The production of shweshwe moved to South Africa in the late 1980s when the firm Da Gama bought rollers from ABC in Manchester, UK, and set up a printworks at King William’s Town. The ‘Three Cats’ trademark originated in Manchester in the 1930s, but Da Gama have now introduced some more distinctively African trademarks such as the ‘Three Leopards’.
Maasai warriors from Kenya and Tanzania have a long tradition of wearing tartan patterned blankets, which have become part of the cultural heritage of the region. The logo which appears beneath the inscription on the central panel is of the two famous 17th-century Swahili side-blown horns, siwa, from Lamu and Pate Islands on the north coast of Kenya.
Early designs were hand-stamped onto cloth using wooden blocks to create textiles known as kanga za mera. The two groups of stamps are from Lamu Island, Kenya and from Zanzibar Island, Tanzania. Those from Lamu were hand-carved by Swahili craftsmen. Those from Zanzibar include metal and fibre inserts and were probably imported from India.
The ‘crosses and tangerine’ design which can be seen on the block from Lamu pictured here, was particularly used on kisutu, the wedding kanga. Note the ‘Paisley’ pattern on one of the blocks from Zanzibar became enormously popular because of its similarity to the shape of the cashew nut, which is a powerful symbol of wealth and fertility in eastern Africa.
In this series of untitled woodcut prints, the Kenyan artist Peterson Kamwathi uses the striking image of people queuing, creating echoes of the published images of blindfolded prisoners from Afghanistan, or hooded prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Kamwathi makes these images all the more poignant by covering the figures in the repeating patterns of flowers and leaves seen on the printed cloths of the region, kanga and kitenge. In eastern Africa, as in other parts of Africa, women (in particular) and men may dress in the same pattern and colour of cloth to show unity and friendship, whether at a wedding, a funeral or some other special event.
Social Fabric: African Textiles Today was held at the British Museum and is now a touring exhibition.
It will tour across the UK to the following
museums and galleries:
Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent
14 February–17 May 2015
Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter
26 May–6 September 2015
September 2015–January 2016
William Morris Gallery
Curated by Dr Chris Spring
The book African Textiles Today, written by curator Dr Chris Spring, is available from the British Museum shop online.