African Textiles at British Museum

This British Museum exhibition was mainly made up of kangas from Eastern Africa, and other printed cotton textile costumes from the rest of Africa. I found the kangas of particular interest as it was an excellent example of textiles serving a sociopolitical function as well as a practical one. Kangas originated in the late 19th century, and were originally made up of six hand block-printed handkerchiefs. The modern version is a large rectangular factory printed piece, sold in pairs and worn by women in public or singularly by men in the home. Common features are a patterned border and slogan or proverb that forms the prominent force in the design. Topics ranged from national pride or celebrity, political allegiance or ideals. Colours are bright and designs bold, usually with a link between motifs in the design and the features slogan. I admired the bravado and confidence in wearing your beliefs and allegiences in such a way, and I was struck by the contast with other cultures where clothing is used to cover women and are seen by some as stifling or controlling a woman’s right to express themselves.

Kangas are printed in Europe, and a shortage of textiles in post-war Europe led to a re-emergence of hand printing in the 1960’s. Examples of woodblocks were on display, some with metal or fibre inserts creating very fine relief designs. There was also a sample book of 21st century South African textiles, discharge printed by passing indigo or dyed cotton through etched copper rollers, printing a weak bleach to discharge print the design.  There was a section on traders and global connections, where I learnt that tartan cloth is considered a traditional dress of a number of peoples across Africa, having been  introduced by Scottish missionaries, soldiers and traders in the 18th century. Other influences on African texxtiles have their origins in Switzerland and Germany.

There were a few woven Basotho blankets on display from the Sotho people of Lesotho and South Africa. These are large blankets worn by men and women to mark rites of passage. A maize design signifies fertility, and is worn by men once initiated into adult manhood. Early examples had production faults appearing as lines across the blanket, but these have been incorporated into the modern version of the design. The designs are highly stylised in 2 colours, with the stripes in either all white or all red depending on the ceremonial meaning.

I treated myself at the BM by buying a fabulous world textiles sourcebook, which makes a comprehensive reference guide together with 5000 years in textiles, also by the BM press. (see previous post for complete references)

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