A compact, bright, colourful and informative exhibition at the British Museum, African textiles today looks at the history and production of clothing in Eastern and Southern Africa, focusing on Kanga’s from Kenya and Tanzania, Capulana’s from Mozambique and Shweshwe from South Africa.
Textiles are the most obvious, visible signifier of culture throughout Africa. History, beliefs, politics, fashions, status and aspirations are communicated through the colours and patterns of textiles.
At the front of the exhibition is a welcoming Kanga with the inscription of Karibu Mgeni ‘Welcome Stranger’ in Kiswahili, on which a labelled map of the African continent is printed. The Kanga is a printed cloth, each with it’s own inscriptions written in the same place. They are sold and worn in matching pairs, and, although principally a women’s garment, they are sometimes worn by single men at home or by masaai men in public. The word Kanga is the Kiswahili word for guinea fowl, and they are named after the spotted plumage of the bird which were reminiscent of the early cloths.
Worn by women, the Kanga can be used to demonstrate her stance on global issues or political allegiance, or even to convey sentiments that would not normally be said out loud. At the end of the exhibition is a Kanga with the inscription ‘Hujui Kitu’, ‘You Know Nothing’, which could be worn by an older woman to comment on her younger rivals. They are also playful, such as ‘The Mangoes are Ready’ a friendly invitation from a wife to her husband to help himself.
A wedding Kanga (Kisitu) is also displayed. These are worn by the bride, her family and friends. In Eastern Africa women and men may dress in the same pattern and colour of cloth to show unity and friendship at any gathering.
More contemporary Kanga’s are on show, ‘Daima Tuta Kukumbuka’, ‘We will always remember you’ the inscription for a Michael Jackson Kanga, which hangs just above one for Barack Obama.
From Tanzania a Kanga for the Millennium reads ‘The new millennium belongs to us’. The central space, known as mji, meaning ‘tomb’ or ‘womb’ is left deliberately empty, filled only with the deep blue of the unknown future.
Kanga’s were originally created in the late 19th Century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenco’s, which were traded from the Portuguese.
It’s not all Kanga’s though, in Mozambique the Lenco (here a head scarf) is worn with the quimau , a tailored blouse, and a Capulana, a wrap around dress. Herero men and women from Angola wear a printed cloth called a Samakaka on special occasions, while on the Comoros islands the Cheramine completely covers the face and body of the woman.
The last part of the exhibition looks at the discharge-printed indigo cloth, the Shweshwe, and the Kings Blankets. On display are blankets that celebrate world figures, such as Albertina Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Josina Machel, from Mozambique, the late lamented mother of the nation.
The textiles of eastern and southern Africa play a central role in all of the major rites of passage ceremonies in women’s and sometimes men’s lives, and this exhibition shines a small, but bright light on this.
The exhibition is on until tomorrow (21st April) so again a bit late on this one..