Creative Africa: Threads of Tradition
The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents an exhibition exploring the time-honored techniques used to create patterns in traditional Central and West African textiles. Threads of Tradition focuses on techniques such as strip-weaving, resist-dying, appliqué, and embroidery through a display of extraordinary objects ranging from skirts, robes, trousers, and ceremonial belts, revealing the beauty, richness, and variety of traditional African textiles that exemplify the spirit of creative Africa.
The most recognized of all African fabrics, kente, is widely known for its vivid colors arranged in visually compelling patterns, and is a potent symbol of African heritage. The exhibition will explore the labor-intensive techniques used to make kente cloth, by showing strip woven textiles made in Ghana by skilled Asante and Ewe weavers. Varying in color, striping, size, spacing, and arrangement, the kente on view demonstrate endless possibilities of pattern making and highlight the weaver’s creativity. Rich with symbolic meaning and high in price, textiles made this way are traditionally a sign of high-status, worn by both men and women.
Through the display of brightly tie-dyed cloths, the exhibition will introduce the practice of resist dyeing that can be used to make patterns ranging from simple tie-dyed circles to elaborate designs. A Woman’s Wrapper made in Nigeria around 1875-1900, shows the deep blue color of indigo dye used in a tie-dyed pattern. The stitch-resist process is illustrated by two early 20th-century Nigerian textiles: one showing the pattern drawn on and protected by stitches before the dye is applied, and the other after dyeing with the stitches removed to reveal the finished pattern.
In the grassland areas of Cameroon and Nigeria, ndop cloths – impressive display cloths that can be given as a gift, worn to show status, or hung as a backdrop – express importance and power. The ndop from Cameroon included in Threads of Tradition is an example of multiple techniques at work: strip-weaving, stitch-resist dyed cotton plain weaving, and cotton embroidery.
Embroidery also embellishes the flowing robes and baggy drawstring trousers worn by Hausa men in Nigeria, with motifs derived from local and Islamic sources. Two male robes worn by Hausa men illuminate the most popular embroidery pattern, called “eight knives” named after the triangular patterns stitched at the neckline and on the pocket. The knives, like other traditional embroidered elements, have symbolic meanings and their patterns can often be interpreted as spiritual paths to enlightenment.
Decorated skirts worn by high-ranking Kuba women in the Democratic Republic of Congo are part of the display. These include an overskirt that incorporates piecing, appliqué, and embroidery, with dynamic wavy edges made of raffia, a fiber made from the rib of palm leaves. Dance skirts are worn for important events, and are spiraled around the body so only part of the pattern shows. One on view is almost eighteen feet in length and the pattern never repeats. While seemingly random and rhythmic, the textile design conveys a wealth of meaning in Kuba society.
Also on view will be embroidered Kuba prestige textiles similar to those on view in Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art (May 14- December 4, 2016). Skilled embroiders use the cut-pile technique, a special time-consuming stitch that produces velvet-like tufts, which produces geometric patterns. These geometric motifs are deeply significant to the culture, and can also be seen on many of the objects displayed in Look Again.
Images and videos on a screen in the gallery will further highlight patterning techniques, and an activity table will encourage visitors to create their own unique patterns. Works acquired by the Museum in the last fifteen years, along with loans from The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) will be on view.
The exhibition is organized by Kristina Haugland, the Le Vine Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles and Supervising Curator for the Study Room. Haugland said: “Over the past fifteen years, the Museum has greatly strengthened our holdings of traditional African textiles. In presenting these together with other works from the Penn Museum, we are pleased to expand the appreciation of Africa’s rich and creative textile heritage.”
Threads of Tradition is one of five exhibitions in the Perelman Building this season, accompanied by related programs that feature a broad spectrum of the arts from across the African continent. The feature historical works of art as well as contemporary fashion, photography, design, and architecture. Each calls attention to the continuities and differences between African art forms over the centuries.
Kristina Haughland, the Le Vine Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles and Supervising Curator for the Study Room
Costumes and Textiles Study Gallery, Perelman Building
The related exhibitions are:
Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art, a major exhibition drawn from the collection of the Penn Museum (May 14 through December 4, 2016).
Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage, exploring the celebrated company’s most enduring designs, examines the process of creating a new textile, and showcases a selection of contemporary fashions by African and European makers as well as Vlisco’s in-house design team (Through January 22, 2017).
The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community, featuring a site-specific, immersive environment designed by this world-renowned Burkina-Faso-born architect (May 14–September 25, 2016).
Three Photographers/Six Cities presents an in-depth look at three photographers who create powerful pictures of African cities: Cairo, Egypt; Nairobi, Kenya; Lagos, Nigeria; Johannesburg, South Africa; Bamako, and Tombouctou (Timbuktu), Mali. From Akinbode Akinbiyi’s observation of urban centers and Seydou Camara’s examination of Islamic manuscripts to Ananias Léki Dago’s pictures of offbeat locales, the images offer unique perspectives on contemporary African experience (Through September 25, 2016).
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been supported by an Advancement grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Creative Africa is made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Arlin and Neysa Adams Endowment Fund, The Kathleen C. Sherrerd and John J. F. Sherrerd Fund for Exhibitions, Osagie and Losenge Imosogie, and a generous anonymous donor. Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
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