Feb 27, 2014
A book that illuminates the living history of Africa through the making and trading of cloth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.