Mantle (Lamba Mpanjakas)

Artist: Martin Rakotoarimanana

Date: 1998

Geography: Madagascar, Antananarivo or Arivonimamo, Imerina village

Culture: Merina peoples

Medium: Silk

Dimensions: L. 108 x W. 70 1/8 in. (274.3 x 178.1 cm)

Classification: Textiles-Woven

Credit Line: Purchase, Rogers Fund and William B. Goldstein Gift, 1999

Accession Number: 1999.102


Hand-woven textiles, or lamba mpanjaka, remain one of the most distinctive and visually stunning forms of expression to emerge from the island nation of Madagascar. These brilliantly hued and gorgeously patterned silk textiles have long captivated Western viewers and reached a high point in the nineteenth-century designs of Merina highlanders. The ready-dyed silk used in such textiles was originally purchased from Arab and Indian traders until sericulture was introduced on the island in the early nineteenth century. The textiles were worn as mantles, draped over the body as a form of toga. During the second half of the nineteenth century, indigenous weaving was almost abandoned, as less costly textiles of European manufacture were increasingly imported.

Martin Rakotoarimanana has created this extraordinary work as a contemporary revival of earlier Merina weaving traditions. Rakotoarimanana bases his work on precolonial Malagasy textiles in collections such as that of the British Museum. His textiles are not intended to be worn, but are rather works of art in their own right that capture the beauty and intricacy of this distinctive tradition. This piece is comprised of five separately woven strip panels joined along the edges. The strips are decorated with various geometric motifs, including chevron and X-shaped star patterns, as well as abstract designs of vegetal forms and birds. In addition, Rakotoarimanana has arranged the entire spectrum of colors in a vibrant and dazzling display.

Lamba mpanjaka are prized not only for their aesthetic beauty, but also for the role they play in Malagasy life. Cloth in Madagascar is used as a marker of identity, defining a person and his or her role in society. It distinguishes people on the basis of region, rank, and wealth. Among the Malagasy, a cloth was so closely identified with its owner that it was considered a second skin, a "social skin," and was even used to stand in for the owner during rituals like purification rites. This silk weaving tradition is believed to be related to the elaborate funerary and commemorative rituals of East Africa. In most Malagasy funerary ceremonies, the corpse is first bound in a lavish lamba mpanjaka called a lamba mena, meaning "red cloth." The color red is considered particularly potent and used only in burial shrouds; it was inappropriate to wear a lamba mpanjaka that featured the color red. Given their preciousness, Malagasy textiles were favorite diplomatic gifts, symbolizing the "material manifestations" of kinship when exchanged between Malagasy parties. Cloth gifts were also used in international exchanges. In 1886, for instance, the Malagasy queen Ranavalona III presented U.S. President Grover Cleveland with two exquisite silk textiles that are now housed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.