Never mind the politics, feel the fabric
Louisa Buck on The Art of African Textiles
Tuesday 10 October 1995
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
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Mario Balotelli: Staff at arson-hit Manchester Dogs' Home convinced Liverpool striker is behind five-figure donation
- 2 Friends 20th anniversary: Alison Jackson photographs reunited cast
- 3 There is literally not a single woman in this iPhone 6 queue
- 4 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
- 5 Scottish independence: Tory revolt against 'devo max' grows as Rail Minister Claire Perry joins
Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams cast in Channel 4 drama about cyber bullying
Friends 20th anniversary: Alison Jackson photographs reunited cast
Downton Abbey: Liam Neeson wants role as stableman in period drama
The Walking Dead season 5 synopsis: Spoilers and existential questions revealed
Friends 20th anniversary: Six things we wouldn't have without influential comedy series
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter
Scottish independence: The Queen breaks silence on referendum debate – as think tank warns of £14bn black hole if Scotland votes Yes
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God