NEW YORK, NY.- Africa's extraordinary legacy of textile arts, with its explosive color and complex graphic statements, will be presented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning September 30. Bringing together more than 40 works dating from the early 19th century to the present including a spectacular silk and cotton kente prestige cloth woven in Ghana during the 19th century and a 30-foot-long installation work by contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End will highlight the enduring significance of textiles as a major form of aesthetic expression across the continent. While examining some of the finest and earliest preserved examples of different regional textile traditions, the exhibition will relate these to works by eight contemporary artists, who draw inspiration from textiles in their explorations of other media ranging from sculpture, painting, and photography to video and installation art. Works selected for the exhibition are drawn primarily from the collections of the Metropolitan and the British Museum as well as several private collections in the U.S. and Europe.
"Although the aesthetics of textiles essentially define Africa's cultural landscape, Western fine arts hierarchies have virtually overlooked textiles as an art form and have favored sculpture from the region. We are seizing this opportunity to heighten awareness of this critical dimension of Africa's artistic legacy," said Alisa LaGamma, Curator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "In January the artist El Anatsui installed his eloquent and highly original creation Between Earth and Heaven that is now one of the highlights of our permanent collection. This fall we will be able to present that 21st-century work in conversation with one of the monumental textile genres that he pays tribute to through his new idiom of expression," she continued.
Dazzling textile traditions figured importantly in the earliest recorded accounts of visitors to sub-Saharan Africa, dating to as early as the ninth century. Historically textiles also constituted one of the primary commodities imported into sub-Saharan Africa, through trade routes that extended south across the Sahara from North Africa until the 15th century and subsequently by Europeans along the Gold Coast. Among the earliest documented examples of West African textile traditions were those collected by European textile manufacturers seeking new markets for their own exports in the 19th century. A significant collection given to the British Museum in 1934 consisted of the African textiles gathered in West Africa before 1913 by Charles Beving, who was a partner of a Manchester firm. More than a dozen of these works, which were gathered as part of market research to determine regional tastes, figure centrally in this exhibition.
The myriad distinctive regional traditions represented include the expansive monumental wool and cotton strip-woven architectural elements created in Mali and Niger; a rich range of deep blue indigo, resist-dyed textile genres produced in Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon; textile panels composed and woven by Igbo women and Yoruba men in Nigeria, to be wrapped around the body as apparel; and a series of the impressive voluminous robes and tunics that have been designed from regional fabrics from Algeria to Nigeria. The techniques used to create these works will be examined along with the various cultural aesthetic criteria they embrace. Across this diverse corpus of works, certain overarching technical and formal approaches as well as aesthetic affinities will be explored.
Contemporary Works on View
These various examples of regional vernaculars on display will provide a foundation and points of departure for consideration of 16 works by contemporary artists who are conversant with this highly sophisticated visual language. Ghanaian kente will appear in relation not only to Anatsui's "metal tapestry," but also to the abstract works on paper by Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Ghana). The bold graphic patterns of Malian woven and industrially manufactured "wax prints" are central focal points of the black-and-white photographic portraits produced in the Bamako studios of Seydou Keita (b. 1921? d. 2001, Mali) and Malick Sidibé (b. 1936, Mali). The longstanding interconnections between North and Western Africa are considered through a spectacular, densely inscribed Islamic protective tunic created by a Hausa artist from Nigeria during the 19th century and a series of the indigo dyed silk banners filled with the poetic textual prayers of a Sufi mystic from the installation work 7 Variations on Indigo by Rachid Koraïchi (b. 1947, Algeria). The transformative potential of textiles and the process whereby individuals selectively enhance and shape their identity through cloth defines the use of the classical textile genres featured and is addressed in both the imagery of the life-size figurative steel sculpture Nigerian Woman Shopping by Sokari Douglas Camp (b. 1958, Nigeria) and The Nightingale, a video by Grace Ndiritu (b. 1976, UK). Finally, the mural 100 Years by Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962, UK) considers the synergy between African textile design and that imported from outside, and how those distinctions have blurred and become unrecognizable. This unique conversation between "contemporary" and "classical" forms of expression will establish the continuity between their aesthetics and enhance an appreciation of their content.