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African Textiles Today

All works of art hold within them stories which range far beyond the time of their creation, and African textiles are no different. In Africa, cloth may be used to commemorate something – an event, a person, a political cause – which in other parts of the world might be written down or recorded by plaque or monument. The history of Africa can be read in cloth.

Today, we are delighted to announce the publication of African Textiles Today, written by the curator of African collections at the British Museum, Chris Spring. To celebrate, we have featured here some highlight excerpts from the book – enjoy!

The global phenomenon of African Textiles

Walk around any market in Marrakesh, Dar Es Salaam, Johannesburg or in any town or village in northern, eastern or southern Africa, and the same fact will rapidly become apparent. Textiles – whether hand-woven, factory-printed, resist-dyed, stamped or embroidered – are arguably the most obvious visible signifier of culture throughout the African continent, or for that matter wherever in the world people of African descent have settled. The history, beliefs, fashions, status and aspirations of people may be read through the colours and patterns of textiles, the means and materials by which and from which they are made, and the occasions on which they are worn or otherwise utilized. Drawing on recent research by staff at the British Museum, and the Museum’s fine collection of African textiles, this book attempts to give a selective overview of the innumerable textile traditions of Africa, as well as an insight into how they have inspired and informed the work of contemporary artists and photographers.


Printed cloth (kanga)


Tanzania, 2002

117 x 166 cm

British Museum

The inscription on this kanga from Tanzania reads, ‘The new millennium belongs to us’. The central space, known as mji, meaning ‘town’ or ‘womb’, is left deliberately empty except for the deep blue of the unknown future.


Fancy-printed dress with images of President Obama and President Mills


China / Ghana, 2009

133 x 131 cm

British Museum

Ghana was delighted (and Kenya slightly annoyed) that Barack Obama chose the former country for his first state visit to sub-Sarahan Africa following his election as US President in 2009. ‘Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions,’ said President Obama, addressing the Ghanaian parliament. This dress, showing images of President and Mrs Mills of Ghana as well as of Barack and Michelle Obama, was tailored from ‘fancy’ print fabric manufactured in China.


Woman’s waist cloth


Dida people, Ivory Coast, mid 20th century

40 x 99 cm

British Museum

This resist-dyed, tubular raffia waist cloth would be worn by women from noble families among the Dida people of Ivory Coast, West Africa. These cloths are created using weaving techniques similar to those used to create bags of a similar shape in neighbouring Liberia. In 1990, an elderly woman named Blah, considered by the community to be the most skilful in creating these cloths, described them as the most prestigious garment which could be displayed at local ceremonies: ‘It is by this cloth that one recognizes that you descend from an old, rich family rather than being a newly rich person’.

African Textiles Today by Chris Spring is published by the British Museum Press (hardback, £30) and can be purchased online at the British Museum shop.

All text and images ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Category: History


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