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A selection of excerpts from African Textiles Today by Chris Spring.

A book that illuminates the living history of Africa through the making and trading of cloth.

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Advertisement and reality
During the Third Sansa workshop in 2009
(pictured right) organized by the Ghanaian
artist Atta Kwami (see p. 61), the Iranian
photographer Tooraj Khamenehzadeh took
the two images below as part of a sequence
of works examining the gulf between
advertisements – in magazines, on bill
boards, on TV – and the realities of life for
women in the city of Kumase, Ghana.
Beneath his own images he displayed
crumpled and discarded advertisements,
including one by the Dutch textile
company Vlisco which manufactures many
of the ‘wax’ print textiles that one of his
subjects carries in a metal bowl on her
head – and which she wears herself as a
walking advertisement.
Noblewoman’s tunic
Cotton, silk
Ethiopia, 19th century
110 x 167 cm
British Museum, Af,Ab.1

Textiles and trade:

four stories from global Africa

It is impossible to discuss African textiles without recognizing the central importance of trade – local, regional, long-distance and intercontinental – in the development of almost all traditions across time and place. In many parts of the world today we may encounter a variety of African textile traditions without necessarily being aware of their historical roots among the (often very small) groups of people who originally created and/or used these cloths.

I will briefly trace four such traditions and their ongoing global impact. Ethiopia and the Indian Ocean ‘Silk Road’ Our first story begins in the mid nineteenth century among the Christian noblewomen of the central and northern highlands of Ethiopia. These women wore tunics probably made of imported cotton sheeting (as likely as not manufactured in Manchester, UK), but which they embroidered around the neck and sleeves with complex and colourful patterns created from imported Chinese silk. Just as the overland Silk Road had brought this precious material from China across Central Asia to Europe and the Middle East, so the trade winds created a watery ‘road’ for silk and other textiles across the Indian Ocean to eastern Africa, a trade which continues to this day. One of the highest offi ces in the courts of the great Ethiopian kings and emperors was the Keeper of the Silk Caves, overseeing the cool, dark and moist environment that provided the ideal storage place for the vast quantities of raw Chinese silk used in creating garments, accoutrements and wall hangings for the complex hierarchies of church, army and state. Today, well-to-do Christian women in Ethiopia wear a version of this nineteenth-century dress, but the original pattern and variants, usually factory-printed, are worn by men and women all over the world as a signifi er of global Africa.

~

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Narrow-strip cloth (pano d’obra) (detail)
Cotton
Manjak people, Guinea-Bissau, early 20th century
115 x 206 cm
British Museum, Af1934,0307.195, donated by Charles A. Beving

When the Portuguese first navigated the Guinea Coast of West Africa they found that local people had a great taste for textiles of North African Amazigh (Berber) manufacture or inspiration, a taste which had been fed by access to textiles traded across the Sahara, or woven on the southern fringes of the desert by weavers familiar with the patterning of trade cloths from the north. The Portuguese initially set up workshops in Morocco to cater for this trade, though that of course meant shipping the fi nished products many hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea. The Portuguese therefore enslaved Wolof and Manding weavers, from the regions which are now Senegal and Guinea Bissau, and took them to the Cape Verde islands. There they were taught to weave the intricately patterned cloths which were popular in the Hispano-Mauresque civilization (tenth to fi fteenth centuries AD) in southern Spain and North Africa. These textiles assimilated the patterning of Amazigh (Berber) cloths (woven by women on upright, single-heddle looms) but were woven by men on complex, multi-heddle ‘draw looms’ which required additional sets of pulleys to be operated by ‘draw boys’ positioned on either side of the weaver. Later this style of weaving, though adapted to the West African narrow-strip loom, transferred to the mainland and can still be found today among Manjak and Papel weavers of Senegambia, who use a small draw loom with just one ‘draw boy’ working with the weaver.

~

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Printed Cloth
Cotton
Democratic Republic of Congo,
late 20th century
116 x 179 cm
British Museum, 2011,2002.24

This textile is printed with the names of various Congolese newspapers. When Mobutu’s dictatorship finally came to an end in 1997, freedom of expression and of the press was enshrined in articles 27 and 28 of the transitional constitution of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite ongoing violence and ethnic conflict, freedom of the press is passionately defended in DRC by organizations such as Journaliste en Danger and is nationally and internationally recognized as vital to a more settled and truly democratic future.

~

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Talismanic tunic (rigan yaki)
Cotton, leather
Northern Nigeria(?), early 20th century
91 x 88 cm
British Museum, Af1940,23.1

This talismanic tunic (rigan yaki), probably from northern Nigeria, also combines the power of written and painted inscriptions with leather packets containing various Islamic protective charms, though on these tunics, unlike the batakari (see p. 175), the amulets are sewn onto the inside of the garment. The written word, in the form of phrases and exhortations from the Qur’an, possesses a magical signifi cance to the peoples of Islamic West Africa, even to those who cannot read Arabic.

~

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Embroidered bark-cloth, Ekigaji (‘Aloe Vera’) by Proscovia Nabwami
Fig tree bark
Kampala, Uganda, 2008
100 x 120 cm
British Museum, 2008,2021.4

This embroidered bark-cloth is titled Ekigaji (‘Aloe Vera’) and was made by Proscovia Nabwami of the Nalumunye Women’s Group, Kampala, Uganda in 2008. This work celebrates the many benefi cial uses of the aloe vera plant. It was created through the Design, Health and Community project, a collaboration between Northumbria University, UK, Durban University of Technology, South Africa and Makerere University, Uganda. Women from different craft groups in Uganda explore the ancient tradition of bark-cloth making to communicate contemporary concerns, particularly over HIV and AIDS.

All text and images taken from African Textiles Today by Chris Spring. This book  is available to buy from the British Museum Shop online.


‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’

A guest blog by John-Paul Stonard

Last week the great literary critic James Wood gave a lecture at the British Museum, titled ‘On Not Going Home’. He spoke about the condition of exile, of living one’s life away from home, and of the strange unreality of this experience.

His own compelling account is based on the experience of having lived for the last two decades in America (he was born and raised in Durham) – a sort of voluntary ‘homelessness’ that he is at pains to distinguish from the wrenching experience of exile. ‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’, he cites Edward Said, one of the great thinkers on the subject.

Wood’s brilliant lecture raised many questions that illuminate the works of art included in the book and exhibition Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation. The title might make you think of the Berlin Wall, and the political division that ended in 1989; but the sense of division is of something much deeper, much more personal and psychological.

All of the six artists included in the exhibition were born in eastern Germany, but sooner or later moved to make their lives in the West. Markus Lüpertz and Sigmar Polke were born in the eastern territories, lost to Germany in 1945, and were forced with their families west. Blinky Palermo moved with his foster family at the age of nine. Georg Baselitz transferred from East to West Berlin during his training (before the borders closed in 1961), just as Gerhard Richter completed his training as a Socialist Realist in Dresden, before moving to Düsseldorf and starting over again, working, as he (ironically) termed it, as a ‘Capitalist Realist’.

The most dramatic case was that of A.R. Penck, who crossed the East-West German border on foot in 1980, after years of working underground in opposition to the East German State. He had already made a career in the West, thanks to the dealer Michael Werner, who would smuggle his paintings out (by car), and showed them in his Cologne gallery. It seemed inevitable that one day Penck himself would follow.

The lives and works of all these artists were inflected in different ways by this experience of migration, and by the political division of Germany. I think of James Wood’s comment on his own experience of living in America, and the ‘light veil of alienation thrown over everything’. I wonder if this ‘veil of alienation’ might explain the way in which those such as Baselitz and Richter saw West Germany, somewhere apart from their ‘heimat’ – that untranslatable German word which suggests the intimate connection with the landscape in which one was born and raised.

For the philosopher and critic György Lúkacs (cited by Wood), the modern novel was an expression of the ‘transcendental homelessness’ of the modern age. Modern life was defined by the experience of exile, and the novel was the most direct expression of this experience. ‘Transcendental homelessness’ seems to float over the images created by Baselitz in his early series of drawings, prints and paintings of ‘heroes’, lonely figures walking through desolate landscapes. It is a feeling of restlessness that I also sense in the way Markus Lüpertz and A.R. Penck made drawings, producing vast quantities, as if constantly searching for something, some form of resolution. Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter’s early works are marked by a cool irony, and a feeling of keeping a distance from ‘art’ itself — Richter used photography, Polke an absurdist humour, as a way of avoiding ‘going home’ to older ideas of making art. And the myths that have gathered around the life and work of Blinky Palermo, whose name is itself a token of not-belonging (he was born Peter Stolle, and went through a number of change of surname, before alighting on the pseudonym as a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie), make of him one of the most romantic, and elusive artists of all the ‘Baselitz generation’.

Listen to James Wood’s lecture via the London Review of Books website

Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31st August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history by John-Paul Stonard in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition.

Love Poetry ~ from the Vikings to Haiku

If you’re feeling romantic, why not share a verse with your loved one? Here we offer you the best of the British Museum’s collections of love poetry,
with a historical twist!

~

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From Viking Poetry of Love and War edited by Judith Jesch

Viking culture valued poetry highly and rewarded poets handsomely. The language of Viking poetry is colourful, intricate and is often light-hearted, even in the face of death and tragedy.

The pure, white headband-Nipt
of forearm-snow brought us wine;
the guys could see Ermengard’s
beauty when we met.
Sharp swords swing from scabbards
now, as the staunchly bold
guys get ready to attack
this castle here with fire.

Rognvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (12th century)

~


From Medieval Love Poetry edited by John Cherry

The quest is the essence of medieval romance, whether it is for the Holy Grail or for the jewel of Love…

I know of a beauty, a beryl most bright,
As lovely to look on as silver-foiled sapphire,
As gentle as jasper a-gleam in the light,
As true as the ruby, or garnet in gold.
Like onyx she is, esteemed on the height;
A diamond of worth when she’s dressed for the day;
Like coral her lustre, like Caesar of knight;
Like emerald at morning, this maiden has might.
My precious red stone, with the power of a pearl.
I picked for her prettiness, excellent girl!

Anonymous

~


From Classical Love Poetry edited by Jonathan Williams and Clive Cheesman

From the first stirrings of passion to the true torture of unrequited love, from the lifelong bond between husband and wife to the pain of being left behind, the subjects of Classical poetry differ little from our preoccupations with love and romance today.

Great Aphrodite came to me once in my sleep
Leading little Eros by the hand – he
Stared shyly at the ground. She spoke,
‘Dear rustic swain, take this lad, and teach him to sing.’
She goes, and I, fool, teach Love my songs,
How Pan invented pipes, Athena the flute,
Hermes the lyre, weet Apollo the harp.
So I taught him, but he pays no heed.
He sings his own songs, of the loves
Of gods and men, his mother’s works.
What I taught him then I now clean forget,
But what he tauught me stays with me yet.

BION. 5

~

From Indian Love Poetry edited by A. L. Dallapiccola

Love is widely celebrated in Indian poetry, whether mystic love for the divine or the passionate and affectionate feelings between loves, husbands and wives, parents and children, family and friends.

He left me saying he would return tomorrow,
I covered the floor of my home
Writing repeadedly ‘Tomorrow’.
When dawn returned, they all enquired:
Tell us, friend,
When will your tomorrow come?
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I lost all hopes,
My beloved never returned.
Says Vidyapati: Listen beautiful one,
Other women lured him away.

Vidyapati, Girl playing with peacock

~

From Haiku Love edited by Alan Cummings

Although haiku poems are usually focused on the natural world, many poets have used haiku to capture the fleeting human experience. Elegant haiku poems explore all aspects of romantic love with humour, satire, wit and compassion.

over my shoulder
I saw her under her umbrella
just a glance

Nishiyanna Soin


a shooting star—
in love, not knowing
where it will lead

Mayuzumi Madoka


don’t cry, insects!
lovers must always part
even the stars

Issa

~

If you’d like to find out more about any of these books simply visit our website

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