This landmark exhibition presents some 60 contemporary paintings, sculptures, videos, and photographs by artists living in Africa and abroad alongside a selection of mid- 20th-century and recent African textiles. The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles / Recent Art, illuminates the connections and continuities between past and recent modes of African artistic expression. The exhibition also draws attention to vital and often exuberant African textile traditions which have too often been relegated to the long shadows cast by classical African sculpture.
In presenting a broad range of media and artistic approaches, The Poetics of Cloth demonstrates how a number of African artists—coming from different nations and cultural milieus—share a common engagement with one of the most fundamental forms of African expression. The show is curated by Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery, and is accompanied by a 112-page illustrated catalogue. A parallel exhibition, The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End, which is simultaneously on view in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been organized by Alisa LaGamma in conjunction with Christine Giuntini, respectively Curator and Textile Conservator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The Essential Art of African Textiles highlights the enduring significance of African textiles as a major form of aesthetic experience across the continent and remains on view until March 22.
The installations at the Grey Art Gallery and the Met juxtapose contemporary African artworks with the textile traditions that inform them. The Poetics of Cloth focuses on key West African textile traditions including: Ghanaian kente and adinkra, Malian hunter’s tunics, factory-produced “fancy” and “wax” prints, indigo-dyed fabrics, and Nigerian Igbo wrappers borrowed from the Met, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and private collections.
One of El Anatsui’s (b. 1944, Anyako, Ghana) shimmering monumental “textiles,” inspired by kente cloths and fashioned from discarded bottle tops, wrappers, and detritus, will be exhibited alongside a mid-to-late 20th-century strip-woven kente cloth and a more recent kente woven in the workshop of Samuel Cophie (b. 1939, Anyako, Ghana) in Bonwire, Ghana, in 2007. An early wood relief by Anatsui, Leopard Cloth,1993, refers to nsibidi, a code of emblems used by the Leopard (Ekpé)—a secret society in southeastern Nigeria. Nearby will hang a monumental work by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu, which is fashioned from used telephone cards joined by plastic twine, again recalling traditional Ghanaian kente cloths. Small abstract paintings by Ghanaian artist Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Accra, Ghana)—who, like Wemega-Kwawu, will make his American museum exhibition debut, and whose works are similarly inspired by kente cloths—round out this grouping.
Abdoulaye Konaté’s (b. 1953 Diré, Mali) monumental Gris-gris blanc, 2006,references an ancient Malian textile tradition by echoing the shape of a traditional Bamana hunter shirt—a large horizontal rectangle with a smaller square attached to the bottom edge, meant to cover the groin during battle—that will be shown nearby. On view in this section is Plantes du Jardin, 2003, a textile work by Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, a collective of six Malian artists who are largely responsible for having recovered and elevating bogolan, a traditional textile technique usually translated as “mud cloth,” to a symbol of national and even pan-national identity. In a recent series they fabricate artworks by sewing linear and geometrical designs into double-layered cotton fabrics and which are inspired by the thick cotton hats worn by Malian hunters.
Another grouping includes one of Yinka Shonibare’s (b. 1962 London) signature sculptures, 19th-Century Kid (Charlotte Brontë), 2000, of a headless small mannequin wearing Victorian-style garments made from “Dutch wax” print cotton fabrics based on late-19th-century Indonesian batiks produced by Dutch and British manufacturers and sold in West Africa. Nearby is Grace Ndiritu’s (b. 1976 Birmingham) Still Life, 2005–7, a large-scale 4-screen video installation that depicts the artist concealing and revealing parts of her body with boldly patterned factory-produced wax prints purchased in Mali. Also included in this section are black-and-white portraits by renowned Malian photographer Malick Sidibé (b. 1936 Soloba, French Sudan) which were commissioned by Senegalese-Malian fashion designer Lamine Badian Kouyaté, whose line is called Xuly Bët. The textiles that link these contemporary works are represented by a selection of “Dutch wax” and “fancy prints,” produced by Akosombo Textiles Limited (ATL), the largest textile manufacturer in Ghana. Many of these fabrics are titled and communicate specific meanings or attitudes. Some are commemorative cloths, for example, a celebration of the Pope’s visit to Ghana, or were commissioned by organizations, such as the Ghana Hairdressers and Beauticians Association. Others depict contemporary household appliances such as irons, and still others are inspired by traditional Asante and Ewe kente patterns.
A striking Ghanaian funerary adinkra cloth, made in a pre-colonial Akan textile tradition, anchors another grouping in the exhibition. Adinkra textiles are hand-printed with dye made from tree bark and applied with carved calabash stamps. Each of the more than 700 symbols is derived from a proverb, historical event, or spiritual axiom. Displayed nearby will be the paintings of Owusu-Ankomah (b. 1956 Sekondi, Ghana), along with works by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu (b. 1959 Sekondi, Ghana). Both incorporate adinkra designs in their abstract paintings.
Rachid Koraïchi (b. 1941, Ain Beida, Algeria), who now lives in Paris, is represented by excerpts from a larger installation, 7 Variations autour de l’Indigo, from 2002. Employing indigo for its spiritual associations, he focuses on the number 7, a mystical number in Sufism. In this work, traditional and classic symbols are silkscreened onto handwoven silk banners combining verses by poet and mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (c. 717–801) with Koraïchi’s elegant calligraphy and designs. A piece by Nike Okundaye(b. 1954, Ogidi, Nigeria),who is known for her textile works employing adire, the resist-dyed indigo cloth used for wrappers by Yourbua women, not only depicts traditional symbols but also incorporates American quilting techniques. Also featured in this section is Musical Materiality, 1998,by Senegalese artist Viyé Diba (b. 1954, Karantabla, Senegal), who uses fabric swatches in a manner recalling colorful patchwork clothing of the Mouride in a work that hovers between sculpture, installation, and musical instrument.
An important theme explored throughout the exhibition will be the way in which textiles and cloth function as carriers of meaning beyond mere indicators of identity. South African artist Sue Williamson’s (b. 1941 Litchfield, England) Pass the Parcel, Jacob, 2007, a work comprised of 21 collages, underscores the role of a traditional garment worn as key evidence in the well-publicized rape trial of Jacob Zuma, the recently-elected President of the African National Congress. Zuma claimed a wrapper worn by the victim constituted a sexual invitation that, as a Zulu warrior, he was obliged to initiate. This argument placed the wax-print fabric at the center of a wider debate as to its meaning. On the other hand, Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp’s(b. 1958, Buguma, Nigeria) life-size steel figures demonstrate a successful intervention of a female artist into a traditionally male-dominated art world—formerly women were not allowed to carve or sculpt. Woman with a Palm Leaf Skirt, 1986, is one of several works inspired by Kalabari rituals of southeastern Nigeria in which female initiates are presented to the community dressed in prestigious cloth wrappers. Also in this grouping are color photographic portraits of chic Johannesburg youths by South African Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko (b. 1977, Cape Town). Her series Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, 2003–6, documents dynamic individuals whose style and pizzazz challenged cookie-cutter “ideals.”
The 112-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition will include 48 color illustrations. In his essay “Seeing and Wearing: Textiles in West Africa” renowned Africanist scholar John Picton addresses the relationship between textile and dress, as well as aspects of pattern and texture, local and transnational histories. Award-winning Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho contributes an essay titled “Ghanaian Kente: Cloth and Song.” Trained as a weaver, he describes the “rhythm-based aesthetics” of this “national cloth of Ghana” as well as the cultural and sociological aspects of textiles as clothing in Africa. An essay by Lynn Gumpert surveys the “contested territories” of exhibiting works by contemporary artists living in Africa and abroad, and examines issues surrounding the juxtaposition of recent work with “traditional” African arts. Finally, the book will contain color plates of works by all 16 artists featured in The Poetics of Cloth with entries by Jennifer S. Brown, Lydie Diakhaté, Janet Goldner, Lynn Gumpert, John Picton, and Doran H. Ross.