A principle reason why African and European merchants were attracted to Madagascar were the high-quality cotton, raffia, and silk textiles produced by indigenous artisans. Far from mere trade commodities, however, textiles were an essential aspect of Malagasy social and ethnic identity, and some types of cloth were imbued with supernatural powers. The Sakalava, Mahafaly, and Merina were three Malagasy cultures for which textiles played an important role in statecraft and metaphysical belief systems. Sakalava master weavers created a dyed raffia cloth called laimasaka (“cooked tapestry”). This material served a range of purposes, from the functional to the ceremonial. Impressively large pieces were used as tents and room dividers, while finely woven, elaborately decorated cloths served as clothing and burial shrouds (1999.47.114). Sakalava and Mahafaly weavers also used cotton, cultivated in Madagascar since the sixteenth century, to create textiles. A seventeenth-century engraving by Olfert Dapper, a Dutchman who compiled travel lore, portrays two nobles of “Manghabei” (probably the Menabé kingdom) wearing such cloth fashioned into shoulder and waist wrappers. While the details of the cloth’s use and appearance may not be entirely accurate, this image illustrates the important role it played in Sakalava society and the favorable impression most contemporary Europeans had of its appearance, quality, and comfort. Cotton thread was also thought to have special curative powers, and healers used it for ritual purposes or combined it with other materials to make protective charms (1995.549).
Especially in the highlands region of the Merina kingdom, cocoons collected from the wild silkworm were unraveled and woven into highly valued textiles called lambda mena, meaning “red silk.” In actuality, these cloths were woven in many color and pattern combinations (1999.102). Their “red” status stems from their links to regal prestige and ancestral authority, concepts that were associated with this color in Merina thought. Worn by the aristocracy in life, these textiles were also a focal point of burial, exhumation, and reburial ceremonies designed to free the dead person’s spirit from earthly death and decay. Dapper also depicted a Malagasy funeral ceremony. In this engraving, relatives of the dead individual have wrapped the body in ornamental cloth and are in the process of depositing it in the tomb in the background of the picture. Various gifts, which will accompany the corpse, can be seen assembled in the left foreground.
Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Kingdoms of Madagascar: Malagasy Textile Arts.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/madg_3/hd_madg_3.htm (October 2003)
Green, Rebecca L. Once Is Never Enough: Textiles, Ancestors, and Reburials in Highland Madagascar. Bloomington: Indiana University Art Museum, 1998.
Kusimba, Chapurukha M., et al., eds. Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2004.