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British Museum explores the global phenomenon that is African textiles
This kanga from Kenya celebrates Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States of America. President Obama’s father was from Kenya and he has extended family that lives in east Africa. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- The making and trading of cloth have been vital elements in African culture for at least two millennia. Through cloth we can understand not only Africa’s history but also its engagement with other parts of the world. This exhibition considers the global phenomenon that is African textiles.

Displaying a wide range of textiles and related objects from the British Museum’s extensive collection, most of which are exhibited for the first time, this exhibition takes a new look at the history and continuing significance of printed and factory-woven textiles in eastern and southern Africa. It explores the patterns of global trade that these pieces reveal, as well as the ways in which they have influenced some of the region’s foremost contemporary artists and photographers, including Georgia Papageorge, Karel Nel, Peterson Kamwathi and Araminta de Clermont.

The opening section contains four visually striking pieces that introduces the long history of textile traditions in Africa and their use as a means of communication. Two of these pieces contain a welcome and warning. The first message is unequivocal, the second far more enigmatic, though both are conveyed through the medium of textiles known as kanga, widely worn by women (and sometimes men) in eastern Africa. One inscription translates to ‘Welcome stranger’, the other, ‘You know nothing’. Kanga is the Kiswahili word for the guinea-fowl; the textiles were so named because the spotted patterns on the early cloths were reminiscent of the markings on the plumage of this bird. These textiles play a very special role in Swahili society; the wearing of printed cloth by women in eastern Africa was initially a powerful symbol of emancipation, and the inscriptions in Kiswahili became a means of communicating ideas which might have been difficult to say out loud.

The main body of the exhibition demonstrates how textiles can be used to address global issues and to express individual concerns in this part of Africa. For example, kangas may carry political or educational messages; this section includes a kanga that was commissioned by a politician seeking election in Kenya which contained the Kiswahili inscription SINA SIRI NINA JIBU ‘I have no secrets but I have an answer’ in which the name of the politician, Nasir Najib, is hidden. This section also contains a striking kanga from Tanzania that shows an AIDS ribbon on top of a map of that area. The inscriptions state that “We young people declare war on AIDS because we have the capacity and the will to do it!”

The final sections considers the history of textile traditions and trade, whilst looking at the origins of the different types of printed cloth from various areas of South Africa, such as shweshwe, a printed indigo cloth with a complex history, and their wider influence on contemporary art and connections with other parts of the world. This section includes pieces of early printing equipment and examples of cloth and hand-painted textiles from Zanzibar, as well as historical photography of people wearing the various textiles.

Textiles of eastern and southern Africa provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their unspoken language often provides a way of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be expressed in other ways, and these cloths regularly move between the realms of the secular and the sacred. This fieldwork-based exhibition aims to contribute to the small but steadily growing body of research into these hitherto rather neglected African textile traditions.

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