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A very good reason to go to Indianapolis…

September 14, 2013

Majestic African Textiles

Indianapolis Museum of Art

For those of who remain on constant awe of the creative genius of the African artist there is an excellent opportunity just a few hours away from Chicago to see extraordinary and rare examples of African textiles. Niloo Paydar, curator of textiles and fashion arts at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has assembled and mounted a superlative exhibition of African textiles representing the entire continent and a myriad of techniques. This as an exhibition that requires no knowledge of African textile traditions to appreciate. One can just relax and look at these incredible textiles as one looks at any work of art. One need not know who the Dida are or what shibori means. Just allow yourself to be dazzled. One thing that constantly impresses me about African art is the amazing breadth of aesthetic possibilities that African artist explore. This exhibition is a perfect example of that breadth.

In the first room one is immediately impressed with several enormous prestige robes worn by high-ranking men during ceremonies and public display. For many West Africans the size of the robe- or pants- is commensurate with the status of the wearer. The more important the man the bigger the robe and the more elaborate its embellishment. A highlight of this installation is a sensational Mende blanket, strip-woven by men and probably dating to the early decades of the past century. (A number of the pieces in the exhibition have impressive provenance, rare for ethnographic textiles – indicative of prescient collectors who recognized the beauty of these pieces when most scholars and collectors ignored them). A pair of elaborate head pieces from Nigeria are fantastic hybrids – European brick-a-brac combined with archiac abstract motifs of lizards and other animalistic creatures. While not quite Papal they project wealth, status and special privilege.

In the same hall are superb examples of large strip woven cloths often referred to as kente cloth. The most remarkable of this group are two by the Ewe people of Togo. Knowing a bit about how they are conceived and executed makes them even more beautiful. They are woven by men in very long narrow strips on a simple back-tension loom. After weaving the strips are cut and assembled into large, wide blanket-like cloths. But it’s not quite that easy. The elaborate layered, interwoven geometric patterns are pre-conceived in the weaver’s mind eye as he weaves, requiring the processing of an astonishing amount of information and memory capacity to envy. The result is a textile of astonishing beauty that becomes even more so once wrapped toga-style about the body.

The next room is full of contractions and contrasts. On the right wall as one enters are rare and luscious textiles from North Africa – rarely seen anywhere. Here the Islamic-Mediterranean influence is profound. So many pieces look alarmingly haute couture. A metallic cape-like garment of shimmering silver from Egypt, a man’s short jacket, elaborately encrusted, looking very French but actually based upon a lion’s pelt. And a woman’s sash from Tunisia with an ikat ground nearly subsumed by subtle and arresting surface designs. On an island in the middle of the room is the other Africa- a march of dance costumes that would be envy of many a contemporary Western performance artist. Several are sexy skin tight nets – the most spectacular being one from Cameroon with a cumber bun of multicolored raffia – like some great mane. Others are patterned to suggest animal skins. A magnificent Engungun costume from Nigeria is wonderfully displayed as if it were being danced. While impressive as displayed on inanimate mannequins one can only imagine how amplified their impact would be on an entranced dancer.

In stark contrast to the sumptuousness of North African textiles are the textiles of the Dida of the Ivory Coast and the Kuba of the Congo Rive Basin. Here one sees the most ancient of African textile traditions. Both are made of bast fiber – in this case the fiber drawn from the leaves of the raffia palm. Dying is done with earth pigments. In the case of the Dida cloths, no loom is used. Rather the pieces are finger woven – in a process related to basketry. The magnificent Kuba pieces – particularly the great long skirts – are immediately accessible to a 21st century Western eye. No surprise that Matisse collected them as did other early 20th century French artists.

There are many other superb pieces in this excellently installed show – beaded pieces from South Africa, mud resist dyed cottons from Mali, the archaic stitched resist robes from Cameroon, rare Ethiopian pieces and may more that make a short trip to Indianapolis well worth the drive.

The exhibition runs until March 2014. Visit the web site of the museum for photos of the exhibition.

From → Africa, Textiles

One Comment
  1. I enjoy reading your blog, because the writing displays a love and appreciation of these items that exceeds investment, dry scholarship, or analytic interest in the materials and composition. You think and write like as an artist. This is refreshing in a time when most writing about tribal arts is restricted to basic descriptions and provenance, often written with more than a little marketing technique. Thank you!

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