I could certainly mention my love of bold colours and several trips to Africa as two good reasons for visiting the African Textiles Today exhibition at the British Museum last Monday. There is also a third one which, may I confess, is linked to my rather limited knowledge of the customs and traditions of the African community. Growing up in France and England, two countries with a strong colonial heritage, it is sometimes easy to forget that a deeper message lies beyond the fabulous and exuberant traditional costumes worn by some African women, betraying clues to their regional geography, politics and status.
This exhibition certainly helped put some of my personal memories into a more cultural context thanks to some fascinating pieces on display such as kangas from Kenya and Tanzania, capalunas from Mozambique and shweshwes from Southern Africa. Textiles in Africa don’t just reflect changing fashions, tastes and trends, they also refer to a staggering range of social, political and religious topics as diverse as the 2010 World Cup or the war on HIV and AIDS. Many honour popular individuals, from prominent freedom fighters Nelson Mandela and Josina Machel to the less savoury characters of Jacob Zuma and King Mswati III of Swaziland, one of the last absolute monarchs in the world.
Women in Africa primarily make and wear those garments and it’s no stretch to say that, due to legal, economic, social and even educational constraints in certain parts of Africa, textile designing is sometimes the only creative route to voice their concerns and message.
The extraordinary diversity of peoples and cultures on the African continent contributes to elevate the practice of communicating through cloth into a refined and subtle art form. This is certainly a fascinating and complex topic and this small but insightful exhibition provides a significant step towards a greater understanding of this rich and varied part of African culture.