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The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End

Curator Alisa LaGamma talks to artist Sokari Douglas Camp about her work, including the steel sculpture Nigerian Woman Shopping, which is featured in the special exhibition The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End.


Alisa LaGamma: This is Alisa LaGamma at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I am curator of African art. And I'm speaking on the occasion of The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End, a special exhibition that we currently have on view in The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. The exhibition explores Africa's extraordinary legacy of textile arts with its explosive color and complex graphic statements, and includes some of the finest and earliest preserved examples of different regional textile traditions and relates them to works by eight contemporary artists.

I'm speaking to Sokari Douglas Camp, the author of one of the works on view, entitled Nigerian Woman Shopping, and I was drawn to this piece in this particular context because of the bold manner in which the patterns of the textile worn by this monumental figure is accentuated very prominently. I think that it really brings to life so many of the historical pieces that surround it in this installation. Sokari, could you talk to me about the significance of the cloth that your Nigerian Woman Shopping is wearing?

Sokari Douglas Camp: The significance of the cloth is that it's Dutch print, which is very popular in contemporary Nigerian society. And the patterns are cut out of thin sheets of steel and welded together. The patterns are moons and stars, and you can imagine the actual cloth, which actually would be very, very colorful. The piece of sculpture is just one tone. It's black steel, and it's just varnished and rather dark. And basically I've used steel to just draw in the air and the structure is like a cage—it's not like, you know, a Greek statue, it's more like a drawing in the air, or jetsam, I suppose, because it's a collection of patterns just hanging in the air. Because that's what steel can do. You know, you have little bits of steel just forming a huge structure.

And the lady is very descriptive in that she has a hairstyle that is "wet look" hairstyle from the '80s, and she's wearing this vibrant fabric that a lot of Nigerians wore at this time. And basically it's a snapshot of urban life, it's a snapshot of contemporary life. And she's carrying a bag, which is called a "Ghana must go" bag, because of the troubles between Ghana and Nigeria and Nigeria and Ghana—they were forever throwing each other out of each other's countries, just because of—I don't know—political problems. But I like making that sort of commentary in my work. And, funnily enough, things like that come up in textiles quite often, because people are telling stories. So I don't feel that I’m having a conversation on my own. There's lots of things that echo throughout the exhibition.

Alisa LaGamma: This figure is over-lifesize and constructed from steel that you welded yourself.

How do you sketch out an idea like this and then execute it? What are the different steps that you have to take to achieve something so ambitious?

Sokari Douglas Camp: When I start a piece of work, especially if it's a dressed piece of work, I cut out a pattern. And it's the pattern that holds the structure together, basically. The stars and the moon shapes are attached and form a sort of net. And I use this as the basic structure, the thing that holds up the sculpture. It's the fabric that holds up the sculpture. And I've always liked and enjoyed dressing my work. I've seen more people dressed than naked, so it's something that I like to describe as people in different types of clothing. And basically I just start off with a sheet of steel, cut a pattern into it, and then I lift it up as if I'm actually dressing somebody. Because I dress in these clothes myself, and so it's very, very easy to sort of describe how it feels from the inside and the outside, when I'm making these structures. And the wonder of steel is that, you know, very thin sheets can stand up.

Alisa LaGamma: Could you explain to us the role that textiles play in Nigerian society and specifically in the region where you spent your formative years? What is the role that cloth plays in culture that is so profound and important?

Sokari Douglas Camp: I'm Kalabari, I come from the Niger Delta, in Nigeria, and we live on a series of twenty-three islands and we're a minority group in Nigeria. And cloth is a way of charting one's growth, one's status. As a child, you have a tiny piece of cloth that sort of hides your privates, and you graduate to something above your knee as a young girl. And then when you're married, you have something that goes down to your ankle. And, you know, you can tell how old a woman is, or what state she's in, by the way a woman dresses. And in Kalabari culture, all of this tells a story about someone.

I think—in a strange way, we're very material, because we collect cloth. These different cloths that we have come from all over the world. Kalabari people wear plaid or a tartan type of material that is worn also in Surinam and along the West African coast. We consider this to be traditional material, even though it comes from Madras. And we wear lacy tops from Manchester and Hayes headties from Switzerland. And we wear an awful lot of coral, which is a status thing. Fabric is a status thing. So the more fabric you have from different parts of the world, it counts as an heirloom.

When we have funerals, we decorate rooms in material, and one of the first pieces that I made in steel, which is in the Smithsonian collection, is Church Ede, which is about the fabric that's laid on the bed and the fact that a bed is used as part of the funeral ceremony. So fabric has always played a part in the work that I've done, just because it's part of the fabric of Kalabari art. Masqueraders are dressed in costumes that change their shape. These masqueraded characters are spiritual characters. Women dress in different states to show that, you know, they're in mourning, or they're a young girl, or they're in their prime. They use fabric to make their hips so large and the ladies have to go around with a deck of coral and just a huge skirt, which is a bit like a Rara skirt, but it's layers and layers of Madras injiri material, to pack the girl out, to show that she's in her prime. So it's always played a part in my life, so I use it like people would use paint.

Alisa LaGamma: You're an artist who was trained in the West but who addresses subjects that relate importantly to traditions in Africa that are historical and ongoing ones, and reference a region where sculpture is really the domain of men. How has that affected your formative experiences as an artist?

Sokari Douglas Camp: As an artist, I fell in love with steel, and being trained in the West, I quite happily just expressed myself with it. I didn't really think about, you know, being African and staying true to my background or anything like that. Because that had nothing to do with my current life. I work in steel because it's a fantastic material, and I can draw with it. You know, the textile shapes and things that I do are very thin and yet they make mighty objects. And that is the only thing that I concentrate on.

As far as the art of sculpture being a male thing, it's not just a male thing, actually. In my Kalabari culture, you'd have to be a priest or some sort of shaman-like person to make an object. So I did have some discomfort as a B.A. student, in that I felt that I might be making magic. [Laughs] But conversations with my family and things put me straight, that I wasn't going after magic but was going after art. And that helped me a lot. I mean, Nigeria is my inspiration because there were such fantastic things that I saw as a child and I continue to see, when I visit my family, and—that I would like to talk about just because, you know, they're fantastic. Masquerades are fantastic. The fact that we have oil that comes out of the ground in the Delta is fantastic. How Okada motorcycles are used as local transport is an incredible thing, because you don't have a man turning into a machine like you would in the West. You have, you know, a man, a woman, another man, maybe, and a child as well, on a motorbike, you know, going somewhere. And it's the conversations between the West and my traditional culture that follow me around everywhere, and so I feel that I have to express it, just because it's a conversation that's very personal and it's actually all around us.

Nigerian Woman Shopping is a snapshot of a woman visiting London, actually, you know, Brixton Market, in the '80s, when, you know, Nigeria's currency was the same as the British currency. And Nigerians just hopped off planes, bought up what they could, and—which was an awful lot at that time—and then they left. But if you saw them from the distance, you knew who they were and, you know, which part of Nigeria they came from.

And they were just there as an urban picture in the middle of London, you know, and a lovely surprise for me. Just because I recognize them. It's recognizing my heritage, recognizing my contemporary life, and, you know, knowing a little bit more about myself. So it's very personal, and yes, there are a lot of elements that I've had to deal with. And I love illustrating things about the figure, just because the figure is put into so many different situations in Nigeria. People do the most incredible things with masquerades and, you know, they struggle to do so much with motorbikes and machines. But they do it in a slightly different way from the Western way, and it's very physical. My work is very physical. And I just echo the things that my brothers and sisters are doing, actually, just because even though I'm in London, it's something that I seem to carry around with me.

Alisa LaGamma: I want to thank Sokari Douglas Camp for joining us here in New York, all the way from London.

Sokari Douglas Camp: Thank you.

Alisa LaGamma: This is Alisa LaGamma at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End is on view at the Metropolitan Museum through March 2, 2009.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Fred and Rita Richman, and The Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Foundation.

It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with The British Museum, London.

This is an Antenna Audio production.

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