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Celebrating African textile arts at the Currier Museum of Art
Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville. Ghana, Commemorative Cloth of 1939 Earthquake, c. 1939, cotton commercial cloth, 47 in. x 8 ft. 9 in. (119.4 x 266.7 cm). Gift of Lewis Berner and Family, 2002.31.9. Photo: Randy Batista Photography.
MANCHESTER, NH.- For centuries, textiles have played a central role in the history and cultural life of people from regions throughout Africa. Africa Interweave: Textile Diasporas at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H. from September 28, 2013 through January 12, 2014, will explore the breadth of this dynamic art form through both traditional works and contemporary innovations.

Cloth has long been used across the African continent to signify cultural identity, political power, religious belief and economic status. The works in Africa Interweave will highlight local customs and explore how regional and global cultural exchange and commercial interests from abroad have affected production, aesthetic choices and uses of textiles among people in different parts of Africa.

Africa Interweave includes more than 40 textiles made in the last 100 years, including stunning full-length ceremonial costumes, designer garments and symbolic flags. Drawn primarily from the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art collection at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and organized by Dr. Susan Cooksey, the Harn’s Curator of African Art, these works are among the most striking examples of this art form. Tailored garments, including full-sized masquerade costumes, are shown alongside garments typically worn wrapped around the body. These large-scale textiles are displayed stretched from floor to ceiling to reveal their expert construction and detailed symbolic embellishments. One woman’s skirt made from natural raffia palm fibers by the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, measures almost 20 feet long.

Many innovative textile artists represented in the show provide a contemporary update to longstanding techniques such as resist-dyeing, embroidery and hand-weaving. A festive ceremonial cloth from the workshop of master Ghanaian weaver Samuel Cophie combines strip-woven kente with large appliqued adinkra symbols, which are traditionally stamped onto a cloth typically reserved for funerals. A resist-dyed scarf in the show by Malian-French textile artist Aboubakar Fofana reveals this artist’s role in revitalizing the use of natural indigo and environmentally conscious dyeing practices in place of synthetic dyes introduced to Africa in the 1800s.

Textiles have also influenced contemporary artists working in other media. Achamyeleh Debela’s digital print The Priest (1990-91), which features a dizzying swirl of color around a man’s head, was inspired by the artist’s childhood memory of ceremonial processionals in which Ethiopian Christian Orthodox priests donned vibrant costumes.

Textiles and Cultural Interchange
Africa Interweave reveals how artisans from across the African continent have adjusted their techniques and designs in response to a variety of internal and external forces. President Barack Obama’s visit to Ghana in summer 2009 is celebrated in a commemorative cloth that a local manufacturer produced as an expression of solidarity between the two countries.

Likewise manufacturers from abroad have produced cloth to accommodate African markets. On view is a commercially printed cloth made in Europe in 1939 that commemorates an earthquake that had taken place in Accra, Ghana, and was later sold in Accra’s markets. Another fabric type, kanga, from Ethiopia, is a distinctly East African textile that has elements informed by printed handkerchiefs from Portugal, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It is an example of how styles introduced from regions around the globe from India to Europe were adapted by local craftspersons, and highlights the dynamic history of African textiles.

Africa Interweave features a lavish masquerade costume from the Calabari Ekpe society in present-day Nigeria, which has a 500-year history of successful international trade. During public initiations and other ceremonies, the imported cloth used to make this elaborate costume would reveal the wealth and status of the wearer. Damask from Europe was once the cloth of choice for such garments, but when this outfit was made in 2010, cloth manufactured with metallic dots was in fashion.

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