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Interview with Chris Spring, curator of African Textiles Today

Printed cloth (kanga). Cotton. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm British Museum, Af2002,09.4  The inscription reads: ‘You know nothing’.

Printed cloth (kanga). Cotton. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm British Museum, Af2002,09.4 The inscription reads: ‘You know nothing’.

HUJUI KITU image close-up

African textiles today: social fabric of the east and south opens on 14th February at the British Museum. This exciting exhibition takes a new look at the history and continuing significance of textile traditions in eastern and southern Africa, the patterns of global trade they reveal, and the ways in which these traditions have influenced some of the region’s foremost contemporary artists.

We’ve published here an exclusive interview with the exhibition curator, curator of the African collection at the British Museum and author, Chris Spring.

How did you first become involved in the study of African textiles?

Ever since Picton and Mack’s pioneering exhibition at the Museum of Mankind and book African Textiles (British Museum Press 1979), the Department of Ethnography (now AOA) has had a keen interest in textiles. My first fieldwork in Africa in the early 1990s was concerned with the textile traditions of Egypt and North Africa, which resulted in the book North African Textiles (British Museum 1993) and an exhibition, ‘Display and Modesty’, at the Museum of Mankind. 

How have developments in the last ten years changed the way we should look at textiles? Is the study of African textiles in particular more or less relevant to the world today?

In the last ten years the British Museum has begun to make serious, systematic collections of certain printed and factory woven textile traditions from Africa, first as a result of my fieldwork (2002-) in eastern and southern Africa (which resulted in the ‘Kanga’ exhibition in the BM’s North entrance and a semi-permanent display in the African Galleries), then in response to the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence on March 6th 2007 (which resulted in the exhibition ‘Fabric of a Nation’ which toured widely both in the UK and in Ghana). From these and other exhibitions, publications and research it has become easier to show how certain types of ‘African’ textiles have become global phenomena, just as certain types of textiles from the global community have become African phenomena. The study of African textiles has never been more important, not only as a way of understanding how important Africa is and always has been to the rest of the world, but also how Africa adores and transforms the rest of the world through the lens of its artistry.

In the book, you talk a lot about textiles as a means of communication– which piece in the exhibition/book do you feel has the most interesting story to tell?

It’s a difficult question because so many – arguably, all – the textiles in our collection have fascinating stories to tell. However, my favourite has to be the story of how I came to collect my very first kanga with the inscription ‘HUJUI KITU’ – ‘You know nothing’.

Please take what you want from the following:

In 2002 my work at the British Museum took me to Tanzania, ostensibly to research divination and spirit healing , though quite unexpectedly it also took me down a path of research into the printed textile traditions of eastern and southern Africa, including capulana from Mozambique and shweshwe from South Africa, which have been a growing interest of mine ever since*. I had been told (by a senior colleague of mine at the British Museum who should have known better) that ‘there are no significant textile traditions to speak of in this region of Africa’, so it came as quite a surprise, on my first morning in Dar Es Salaam, to find myself in the midst of arguably the largest and most dynamic textile tradition in Africa. Of course, what my learned colleague meant when he referred to ‘textile traditions’ are the hand-woven, locally produced cloths, often intended for use only on certain special occasions and requiring a high level of manual skill in their production. So I deliberately set out to find a pair of kangas (they are sold in pairs and later cut and hemmed by Swahili women) in the local market which least conformed to my colleague’s notion of an ‘African textile’.  My eye was immediately drawn to a design of blue and red circles, a bit like a Damien Hirst spot painting, contained within a simple border of black lines. Factory-printed in India, the cloth was wrapped in cellophane and was considerably cheaper than some of the other kangas on sale which I later discovered were locally printed in Tanzania.

I showed my purchase to my friend David who was working with me; in common with all kangas it had an inscription in Kiswahili printed immediately below the central design: HUJUI KITU. “What does that mean, David?”  “You know nothing” he answered smiling. “I know I know nothing, but what does it mean?” “You know nothing – that’s what it means!” David went on to tell me that it was a design and inscription often worn by older women as a rebuff to their younger and cock-sure rivals, and from that point I began to realise why this textile tradition was so popular, so significant, so extraordinary and so ‘African’.

Next day, on the road to Bagamoyo, I saw a woman wearing HUJUI KITU and it struck me that the textile’s message could equally well apply to me and to my learned colleague from the BM as it could to the women for whom it was intended – if ‘you know nothing’ you may begin to learn something, whereas if you think you know everything you will never learn anything.

Your book covers textile production and techniques from across the African continent; is there one place that has inspired your study in the field?

I loved my early fieldwork in the oases of Egypt’s Western desert, then in the suqs and textile lofts of Tunisia’s towns and villages, but I think it was my visit in 2002 to the Urafiki (‘Friendship’) integrated textile mill in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in the company of my friend the artist Robino Ntila, which first gave me an understanding of the complex processes and skills which go into the production of the printed cloths which would be the subject of my research for the next ten years.

The African Textiles Today exhibition opens on 14th February, how did you find the experience of curating the exhibition compared with the creative process of writing the book?

Given that we’re opening on Valentine’s Day, I suppose I should be saying something about being torn between two equally beautiful and alluring… but.

The final process of bringing a book together is very much a team effort, though before that there are many months of quite solitary writing. Curating an exhibition, on the other hand, is very much a team effort right from the start. It is a great pleasure to work with friends and colleagues who have a passion for textiles. A huge amount of work has gone on for months in mounting and preparing the textiles to make sure that when it comes to installation, nothing is left to chance. I’m talking about Helen Wolfe, who manages our textile store, Cynthia McGowan and Catherine Elliott, our two M.A.s, and Lisa Galvin who has helped me curate the exhibition. Then there’s the team from Exhibitions: the brilliant Peter McDermid and Paul Goodhead who create the narrative feel and the striking graphics for the show. Last but not least there’s the interpretation team from LV&A, Jane Batty and Iona Keen, who edit and polish up my text. In the end, though, our job is simply to portray as best we can the artistry, power, humour and breathtaking visual impact of these remarkable works from Africa.

African Textiles Today book jacket

African textiles today: social fabric of the east and south is a free exhibition at the British Museum which runs from 14th February – 21st April 2013. African Textiles Today, by Chris Spring, is published by the British Museum Press and is available on the British Museum shop website.

British Museum Objects in Focus: The Franks Casket

Objects in Focus - The Franks Casket

The latest in the British Museum Objects in Focus series, The Franks Casket by Leslie Webster is published today by the British Museum Press!  The whale-bone box known as the Franks Casket has intrigued and puzzled viewers since its discovery in the nineteenth century in France. Made in northern England in the eighth century AD, the sides and lid of the rectangular casket carry some of the most intricate and intriguing carvings from Anglo-Saxon times. The lively scenes depicted are drawn from a variety of sources, including Germanic and Roman legends and Jewish and Christian stories. They are accompanied by texts in both Old English and Latin, using the runic and Roman alphabets.

Setting the Franks Casket in its political and religious context, and looking at the significance of its ingenious images and inscriptions, this book explores the meaning, function and history of this extraordinary icon of Anglo-Saxon culture.

Detail from the casket’s front panel, showing Weland the Smith at his forge. Along the left edge, the runes read hronaes ban, ‘whale’s bone’, describing the material from which the casket is made.

Detail from the casket’s front panel, showing Weland the Smith at his forge. Along the left edge, the runes read hronaes ban, ‘whale’s bone’, describing the material from which the casket is made.

Page 24

The left end of the casket illustrates the Roman legend of the twins Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf.

Page 38

The helmeted general Titus, who leads the assault on Jerusalem, resembles in his bearing and battle-gear the leading warrior on the lid.

Text and images © Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum Objects in Focus: The Franks Casket is available for £5 in good bookshops and on the British Museum shop website.