African textiles, then and now (above, a video by Grace Ndiritu). More Photos >
Art Review | 'The Essential Art of African Textiles'
African Art, Modern and Traditional: Seductive Patterns From a Rich Palette
To the casual Western eye “African art” equals “African sculpture” — masks, headdresses and ritual figures. As two new exhibitions make clear, this picture is laughably outdated.
Many contemporary African artists would point to textile, rather than sculpture, as the tradition with the strongest impact on their work. The Nigerian-born, London-based artist Yinka Shonibare, for one, has extrapolated an entire career from the fascinating colonial history of the fabrics known as Dutch wax prints.
“The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents 19th-century fabrics alongside a few relevant contemporary artworks. Flipping the scales, “The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles/Recent Art,” at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, emphasizes the place of traditional textiles in works by contemporary African artists.
The exhibitions were conceived and organized independently, and there is considerable overlap on the contemporary end. Both, however, are worth a visit.
The older textiles at the Met are rare, exceptional pieces, many on loan from the British Museum. They contain “the DNA,” in the curator Alisa LaGamma’s words, of contemporary works by El Anatsui and others. But the 20th-century textiles and contemporary artworks at the Grey, organized by the gallery’s director, Lynn Gumpert, offer a more generous swath (so to speak) of Africa’s current visual culture.
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met’s 2005 exhibition “Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams” hinted that textiles had been undervalued in the Western canon, offering ample proof that North African cloths were as important to Matisse as Gabon figures and Grebo masks were to Picasso. The museum’s current show may not have the same blockbuster appeal, but it goes deeper into the techniques and traditions that make the fabrics so striking and seductive.
The patterns of African textiles fall into three categories: woven, dyed, and printed or painted. In many woven fabrics, like kente cloth, narrow hand-loomed bands are joined together. Curiously, the designs of many dyed fabrics echo the structure imposed by the loom, conveying a sense that the strip, or band, is to African art as the grid is to Western postwar painting.
One of the Met show’s most spectacular pairings matches Mr. Anatsui’s “Between Earth and Heaven,” a recent acquisition, with a kente prestige cloth from Ghana (in the collection of the British Museum). Using folded and linked aluminum caps from liquor bottles, Mr. Anatsui echoes the rhythmic tension between warp- and weft-face stripes exemplified in the kente. The works also share a palette of red, indigo and gold, although gold dominates in Mr. Anatsui’s shimmering metal “tapestry.”
As the son and brother of Ewe weavers in Ghana, Mr. Anatsui has clearly internalized some of the principles of kente cloth design. This easy, familial relationship to fabric is typical of the contemporary artists in the exhibition. Another Ghanaian, Atta Kwami, is the son of the noted textile designer Grace Salome Kwami. In a statement that accompanies his small paintings and prints, Mr. Kwami mentions his mother’s work in the same breath as the paintings of Sean Scully and Piet Mondrian -- with none of the art-craft, insider-outsider hang-ups Westerners so often display.
An alternative to weaving can be seen in several adinkra and adire wrappers (Yoruba textiles made by stamping fabric with dark pigment or painting on it with a starchy paste that resists dye). These feature quiltlike blocks of pattern instead of bands and are often dyed a deep indigo blue. The contemporary artist Rachid Koraichi, who appears in both exhibitions, makes reference to the complex history and geography of indigo in large vertical banners filled with text from an eighth-century Sufi mystic. They are beautiful, if arcane.
While some of the larger textiles at the Met were commissioned as architectural decoration, others were made to be worn. Most impressive are two voluminous men’s robes, from Nigeria and Liberia, with Islamic-style embroidery over striped weavings.
Women, particularly in Nigeria, were traditionally outfitted in many layers of fabric. As one 19th-century observer, quoted in the catalog, described the wives of Bonny chiefs, “They sported sometimes five, six, or more pieces of different kinds of cloth about them, especially when going to any of their festivals, so that the body looks like a roll or truss of yarn at both ends.”
One of the show’s discoveries, Grace Ndiritu, uses printed fabrics in videos. In “The Nightingale” (2003), at the Met, she coyly winds and unwinds a headscarf. In a more evocative four-screen video installation at the Grey, she tweaks the seductive role of textiles in Matisse’s paintings: allowing her bare limbs to peek out from behind curtains or posing as a mummified Olympia.
At both the Grey gallery and the Met, studio portraits by the Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé make abundant use of textiles as props and backdrops. Their heir apparent, the young South African Lolo Veleko, takes color photographs of Johannesburg teenagers modeling brightly hued sportswear on the street.
Any show of contemporary African textiles would be incomplete without some reference to commercial wax-print fabrics (the ubiquitous brightly patterned cloth made in the Netherlands and, more recently, East Asia for an African market). The Grey’s selection illustrates the breadth of wax-print designs: some reproduce images of political and religious leaders, while others feature bold abstract motifs.
Mr. Shonibare, the best known of the contemporary artists in these shows, makes exhaustive use of wax prints — sometimes as autobiography, sometimes as postcolonial satire. At the Met his benignly decorative installation “100 Years” consists of a grid of rectangles of stretched wax-print fabric, each one selectively modified with a paintbrush. The works at Grey are toothier: a wax-print upholstered dollhouse of the artist’s home in East London, a child-size mannequin in a wax-print dress cut to a Victorian pattern.
Seeing Mr. Shonibare’s art in an Afrocentric context, one comes to realize how much it relies on the history, and vernacular artistry, of wax-print cloth — and on Western viewers’ relative ignorance of both. The work of Mr. Anatsui, on the other hand, only becomes more profound as its underlying conventions are exposed.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 10, 2008, on page C32 of the New York edition.