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

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