Curator Chris Spring guides me along the hallowed halls of the British Museum towards his current exhibition, Social Fabric: African Textiles Today. We walk past Egyptian mummies and priceless treasures from the far corners of the world to a room filled with African garments. Each type of cloth on display represents the regional variations of style in a particular area of sub-Saharan Africa.
Spring’s journey into the world of African textiles began with the East African kangas, printed cloths usually worn by women. Some are celebratory, for special occasions such as weddings, others incorporate portraits of President Barack Obama and Michael Jackson. “They’re driven by African taste and patronage, but they involve people from all over the world,” Spring says. And they have done so for a long time.
The kanga, which means guinea fowl in Swahili, was possibly so named because of the coloured spots used in the early designs. Messages are sometimes implied by the wearer: the mango-themed Tanzanian kanga on display suggests fruit being ripe for picking. Another one that looks like a Damien Hirst design bears the Swahili slogan “you know nothing”, and is worn by an older woman to comment on the younger generation.
According to Spring, the typically Southern African shwe-shwe cloth bears some similarity to the kanga, “particularly as both textiles represented a means of asserting an independent, collective identity”. Introduced to Africa by Swiss and German settlers who made their own clothes from shwe-shwe, today it’s worn by both black and white South Africans.
The distinctive indigo blauwdruk was popularised by King Moshoeshoe I, and is most likely named after him. Produced for a century in Manchester until the factory closed in the 1980s, shwe-shwe is now made by Da Gama Textiles in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape.
In a photograph by Araminta de Clermont, three young South Sotho men pose at a bus stop in Cape Town. They are wearing brightly coloured Seana Marena label woollen blankets, known as lekhokolo, over their clothes. The popular maize cob, or poone, design shows “virility and fertility”. The lekhokolo signifies that the men have reached manhood.
King Moshoeshoe I is also central to the history of the lekhokolo, which dates back to a meeting between him and Scottish trader Donald Fraser in 1876. The original garments had stripes running through them caused by faults in the weave, but Moshoeshoe quite liked them and so they stuck.
Spring likens this to the arrival of batik in Ghana from the Netherlands. Originally destined for Indonesian markets, but rejected there because of faults in the wax process, batik became the height of fashion in large parts of West Africa.
Another such cross-cultural exchange is the adoption of the tartan by the Zulu Nazareth Baptist Church, where the iskotch uniform is worn for sacred dances. The Maasai warriors in Kenya and Tanzania also share the tartan, in their African Highlands.
Colonial intervention is only part of the story of African textiles. “One of the things that I need to do, as a curator, is dispel the myths that people have about Africa,” says Spring. “They don’t think of it as somewhere that’s been trading with different parts of the world long before Europeans arrived. They don’t have an idea of global Africa.”
The narrow view that Spring is deconstructing posits Africa either as a single country beset by war, famine and disease, or views the continent through rose-tinted shades — the home of the big five with big skies to match.
In fact, what Spring repeatedly refers to as global Africa creates a far more complex patina and does not lend itself to convenient definitions. Many African textiles are produced in India, China, the Netherlands or Japan. As Spring points out, the Chinese traded their silk to Ethiopia centuries ago.
Across town, the Stephen Friedman Gallery is exhibiting a series of artworks by Yinka Shonibare, who uses the Yoruba-style batik as a sign of his “postcolonial” identity, according to the press release.
The theme of Shonibare’s exhibition is the greed and excess that led to the global economic crisis. But it is not all a picture of doom and gloom. There is an element of comedy in these works, like his headless figure, B(w)anker — a portly banker gripping an erupting champagne bottle like a phallus and dressed from top to tail in African batik.
Shonibare’s batik-wearing Champagne Kids have globes for their heads, and are drinking bubbly straight from the bottle. All are perched precariously, either about to fall off a chair, or dangling from the wall. Each football-sized globe head records a significant date in the global economic meltdown of 2008, such as when Lehman Brothers collapsed, or when the Irish, Spanish and Greek markets unravelled.
A shorthand for identity
His central piece, Last Supper (after Leonardo), subverts the Christ image, replacing him with Bacchus, the god of wine. Bacchus and his disciples are life-sized headless mannequins, and Bacchus also has the furry legs of a goat. Bottles of champagne are strewn all over the table, gluttony and fornication the order of the day. This installation comes to represent the debauched last supper of the bankers, “before their crucifixion in recession”, explains Shonibare.
The figures are neither black nor white and all dressed in the vivid colours of Dutch-produced wax batik, based on Indonesian designs, traditionally worn in Nigeria. Can you call it African?
“There are regional textiles, but I don’t know if you’d call them African,” Shonibare says. “Within Africa there are indigenous textiles and it’s not connected to the global trade. I guess you could say those are indigenous regional textiles, but as you know the concept of Africa is a Western one.”
Shonibare warns against reading too much into the extensive use of (so-called) African textiles in his work. “Really they’re just tropes”, a shorthand for identity “in a world of stereotypes”.
“[African] people are experiencing global culture and they’re not stuck in some kind of traditional African state. They’re part of a global conversation. They’re essentially modern people.”
Shonibare points out that his current show is about the decadence of bankers and that art cannot be read like a book, it is not like a sermon.
“The fabrics are just a vehicle for producing magic. What you’re looking at is a form of visual poetry, and there are things happening in the work beyond the simple sign of the fabric,” he says.