Never mind the politics, feel the fabric

Louisa Buck on The Art of African Textiles

As critics and commentators slug it out over how and why we should look at African art, one show has managed to circumnavigate this cultural and ethical minefield. The Barbican's "Art of African Textiles" provides more of a pan-continental insight into Africa's creativity than many of the more high profile art exhibitions of Africa 95, but it also does so in a way that underlines the complexity of Africa's relationship with the rest of the world, as well as with itself.

Less a survey and more a celebration, this show combines Africa's past and present and shows that the relationship between the two is volatile but healthy. Repeatedly, technology is appropriated, utilised and adapted on Africa's terms, and the result is a re-invigoration rather than a dilution of individual expression.

From the vivid cotton applique doorway entrance, custom-made this year in the tent-maker's quarter of Cairo, via contemporary woven Yoruba lurexes to complicated silk hand-weaves from Madagascar. From the punchy proverbs on Kenya's mass-produced cotton kangas to the vibrant multitude of wax print cottons increasingly manufactured in Africa rather than Europe; in all their diversity and at every stage of their production, the textiles of Africa are a rich reflection of its complicated, shifting cultures.

And in this exhibition, there's even a physical feeling of Africa itself. Temperature and tempo shift as you move through vividly painted rooms strewn with multi-coloured sand. There's Malian mudcloth and a wall of limpid Yoruba indigoes, a Transvaal wrap-around bristling with safety pins, a clamorous room of machine-printed symbols and slogans and a bolt of tie-dyed cotton from Zaria, Nigeria. The latter cascades down a wall in seeping strips of purple and sienna looking like an aeriel photograph of a river-bed.

The human presence behind these fabrics is never forgotton (and, in the case of the jolly arm-waving Zairian cloth coffin, it's closer than you may think) and the show's dynamic, animated feel has much to do with Joe Casely-Hayford, better known for dressing those at the cutting-edge of fashion, making his debut as exhibition designer.

"The Art of African Textiles" achieves a rare goal. It entertains its audience without diminishing its subject. Through its vivid colours, various materials and arresting designs, serious political points emerge about social and economic circumstances and shifts of power. These fabrics provide a hotline to the identity and aspirations of Africa's multifarious peoples. Whether in the form of a handmade "Ancient Mother" masquerade costume from Northern Edo in Nigeria, a Ghanaian applique Fante flag, flying banknotes on machine prints from Burkina Faso or Nelson Mandela's face on a bolt of machine-printed cotton produced for the ANC in South Africa's 1994 elections - past and present, technology and skill, art and craft all converge and combine into a moveable, wearable, even waveable feast.

n Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 4141) to 10 Dec

n Andrew Graham-Dixon will review the African art season next week

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