Monday 8 April 2013

Red-Cloak Magic

Shakespeare defined the fashion template for the stereotypical witch when he portrayed his weird sisterhood in Macbeth as 'black, and midnight hags', thereby allowing any New Elizabethan child to advertise her Trick-or-Treat credentials by wearing a cardboard cone and a black plastic bin bag, as she begs from door-to-door in naïve parody of the malevolent beldams invented by seventeenth-century witch hunters. But my favourite witches are those savvy, self-confident matrons in red cloaks, whose witchery was woven into fictional texts by Victorian writers unafraid to rework threads drawn from the witch trials and to interweave them with fairy and gypsy imagery.

For instance, Mary de Morgan's Fairy Taboret is kin to the magical beings whose preference for bright colours, especially red, was noted by nineteenth-century folklorists, but she also bears the traditional witch-marks of a hooked nose, long chin, and the ability to fly and become invisible. In the sparkling fairytale, ‘A Toy Princess’, she rescues her royal godchild from a life of suffocating propriety and replaces her with a submissive, monosyllabic doll, to the delight of the Princess and of her subjects whose wooden mentalities are reflected by the fabric of the puppet. So, cloaked by the colour redolent of danger and of female transgression, a feminist agenda was smuggled into the Victorian nursery.

Thomas Hardy borrowed a fragment from the Biblical Witch of Endor when he fashioned Elizabeth Endorsfield in Under the Greenwood Tree. Those villagers who 'look[ed] no further' than her secluded life-style, pointed chin and red cloak' called her, in plain terms, a witch'. 'The charm' which ensures that Fancy Day's father accepts his daughter's love-choice is basically a brew of emotional blackmail and 'common-sense'. Such enchantment is both simple and powerful, spun from a timeless understanding of human nature. Yet its potency lies in the powerful reputation, 'something between distinction and notoriety' attached to this 'shrewd and penetrating' red-cloaked woman.

Most bizarrely, even the saturnine Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre wraps himself in a red cloak in order to read the character of Jane and to draw her to himself. Masquerading as a gypsy who insists on reading the fortunes of his female guests, he appears to them as 'a genuine witch ... in close alliance' with the Devil, or as an aging 'sibyl'. But red-cloak magic is female magic, so while Jane's clear eye penetrates his disguise, Rochester fails to 'read' Jane or to foretell the future.

The Victorian red-cloaked witch is no midnight hag. She is a mature woman, wise, knowing, free spirited, indomitable, often intimidating and sometimes manipulative, but generally inclined to use her magic for beneficent purposes. As a Victorianist and a W ... um ... a woman interested in the image of the witch, I was thrilled to find, when I tore open the bulky parcel sent by my sister who was then living in China, that it contained the most beautiful red alpaca cloak, as soft and cosy as goose-down. Sylvia Townsend Warner's twentieth-century witch, Lolly Willowes, spoke of the grave-clothes once kept tucked away by respectable countrywomen, and secretly offering the promise that 'once more at any rate' those women would be 'worth dressing with care'. She compares those bleak garments with the witch's secreted robes which also offer psychological comfort, but are 'better worth looking at' because, she implies, they allow a woman to live and to fly, if only in her imagination, whenever she chooses. My red cloak is often put to practical use on chilly evenings when my feet stay (relatively) firmly on the ground but, without even bothering to open the wardrobe door, I can also drape the cloak around my shoulders in virtual form whenever I feel compelled to stir life's cauldron a little, or when my imagination feels the urge to fly a bit nearer to the moon.

I think I should also wear it as defiant and disreputable shroud when the time comes!
Dr Sue Elsley

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Wearing the world on your back

Kanga is Kiswahili for guinea fowl. It is also a rectangle of cloth worn in East and Southern Africa. The Masai wear kangas as do women and a few men in towns, cities and villages from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam wherever Kiswahili is spoken.  Kanga cloth is printed with text and images that tell you of the political, social, emotional affiliations of the wearer.

Originally a kanga would be fashioned in black or red cloth punctuated with a design of off white or black contrasts. The predominant pattern was a collection of light spots on a dark ground reminiscent of the feathered back of a guinea fowl. In the first display case to the left as you enter room 91 of the British Museum, Kangas from Kenya bear the image of Barack Obama – Kenya’s most famous son, and another of Michael Jackson. Others reveal affiliations to national parties or local politicians.

The kanga has always been made from cotton with the images and inscriptions rendered by hand block printing. The production of Africa’s biggest local textile industry has been outsourced for decades now to India, the most famous designers originating from Gujarat.

In the final display case, an immaculate blue dress, perfect and timeless in its pristine cotton print clothes a wooden model. The full pleated skirt reveals a horizontal pattern repeat bearing the portrait of Albertina Sisulu, MaSisulu, wife of ANC leader Walter. The dress with its blue bodice, white starched collar, three quarter length French sleeves, pleated dirndl skirt, stands tall over the exhibition as a statue in homage to the extraordinary woman who face encircles the wearer. The exhibition is a testament to how culture, politics, admiration and inspiration are woven into the fabric we wear against our skin. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a BM publication written by art historian and Museum curator Chris Spring, author of a number of important texts on contemporary African visual arts, who led the research project underpinning this exhibition.

The author visited ‘African Textiles Today: social fabric of the east and south’ : a temporary exhibition of the Kanga running from Valentine’s day to 21 April 2013 in room 91 of the British Museum in central London, on Sunday 24 March 2013. 

Prof Claire H Griffiths, University of Chester