The Essential Art of African Textiles
Design Without End
September 30, 2008–April 5, 2009
Dazzling textile traditions figured importantly in the earliest recorded accounts of visitors to sub-Saharan Africa, dating to as early as the ninth century. Historically, textiles also constituted one of the primary commodities imported into sub-Saharan Africa, through trade routes that extended south across the Sahara from North Africa until the fifteenth century and subsequently by Europeans along the Gold Coast. Among the earliest documented examples of West African textile traditions were those collected by European textile manufacturers seeking new markets for their own exports in the nineteenth century. A significant collection given to The British Museum in 1934 consisted of the African textiles gathered in West Africa before 1913 by Charles Beving, who was a partner of a Manchester firm. More than a dozen of these works, which were gathered as part of market research to determine regional tastes, figure centrally in this exhibition.
The myriad distinctive regional traditions represented in this exhibition include the expansive monumental wool and cotton strip-woven architectural elements created in Mali and Niger; a rich range of deep blue indigo, resist-dyed textile genres produced in Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon; textile panels composed and woven by Igbo women and Yoruba men in Nigeria, to be wrapped around the body as apparel; and a series of the impressive voluminous robes and tunics that have been designed from regional fabrics from Algeria to Nigeria.
The various examples of regional vernaculars on display provide a foundation and point of departure for the consideration of sixteen works by eight contemporary artists who are conversant with this highly sophisticated visual language: El Anatsui; Sokari Douglas Camp; Rachid Koraïchi; Atta Kwami; Seydou Keïta; Grace Ndiritu; Yinka Shonibare; and Malick Sidibé. The unique conversation between "contemporary" and "classical" forms of expression establishes continuity between the overarching aesthetics and enhances the appreciation of the contemporary works.