Feb 19, 2022
The Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County (BAM) is exhibiting “African Designs: Creating Wearable Art” in the Special Arts Gallery during January and February.
Artisans within the many African countries create fabrics and wearable art items from various materials. Some designs in the fabrics feature abstract and geometric patterns produced by weaving, printing and even mud stain methods. In addition, other embellishments are added, such as beads, fringe or embroidery, to make the fabrics unique to the group or culture they represent.
African women and men perfected their styles from historical designs and made their wearable items to coincide with their modern lives. As a result, their works have influenced western fashion and appear on handbags to formal attire. However, many fashion designers don’t realize that the patterns represent a rich history of African people.
In a press release, Patricia House, executive director of BAM, described six sections to the exhibit. The divisions are:
Nigeria, west Africa — Aso-oke and the Adire design;
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, West Africa-Kuba Cloth;
South Africa — Ndebele and the Xhosa. Some fabrics added are popular in East, West and South Africa. They are the Ankara and Shweshwe fabrics. However, those fabrics are not indigenous to the continent;
Mali and Timbuktu — the Mud Cloth;
Ghana, West Africa — Kente Cloth; and
Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, East Africa -Kanga and Bark Cloth.
Yoruba is a sizeable ethnic group from Nigeria, a large, densely populated country in Africa. The Yoruba weave the Aso-oke Cloth in cotton or silk. Ask-oke means “top cloth,” meaning cloth of high status. Both men and women weave the fabric to make men’s gowns and hats and women’s wrappers and head ties. Hand embroidery decorates only the men’s clothing.
Adire is an indigo-dyed cloth also made by the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria. Asi means to tie, and the RE means to dye, so the process is similar to our “tie-dye.”
Ankara Cloth was initially known as the Dutch Wax Print, brought to Africa by Europeans early in the 19th century. It is a batik process, and Ankara is known for the colorful prints that reflect the culture of Africa. Shweshwe is similar to Ankara and is found more frequently in South Africa.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, is the largest country in Central Africa. The Kuba Kingdom flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries. Kuba cloth has been made there since the 17th century.
The Raffia Palm tree, which grows in Central Africa and Madagascar, has leaves that may extend to 60 feet long. The weavers cut the veins by hand, which then become the fiber. The Kuba people first used the product to adorn royalty. Today both men and women make the Kuba cloth weaving in geometric patterns. Finally, surface cuts give the pile a velvet-like appearance.
South Africa — The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost country on the continent of Africa. Venda, Sotho, Tsonga, Nguni are some ethnic groups that make up those of Black African ancestry or about 80 percent of the country. Xhosa and Ndebele are subgroups of the Ngunis
The Xhosa have been decorating garments with beads, shells, and buttons for over 200 years. Their people usually dress in white wrappers dyed with ochre that turns reddish-brown.
Although the Ndebele culture has been around for centuries, its origin is unclear. During the late 19th century, it suffered severe punishments and losses from the Boers. Some historians believe that the bad times spawned the colorful art forms attributed to the Ndebele. The Ndebele are known for bright, colorful geometric art designs that it paints on houses and entire villages. The herringbone stitch is a notable one from the Ndebele.
The Mali and Timbuktu region has a history from the the14th century and the many trade routes. In addition, Mali mined gold, which contributed to Timbuktu’s importance. The Republic of Mali is a landlocked country in the northwest region of Africa.
The many ethnic groups in this region make “mud cloth,” which is popular and used by many cultures beyond Africa.
For example, the Bambara people make the bestknown mud cloth, “Bogolanfini,” a combination of words meaning mud, earth and cloth. Mud cloth has historical importance and was considered protection in battles, including those conflicts with French troops during colonial occupation.
The men do most of the cotton weaving in narrow looms to make a plain cloth. The strips are sewn together to create cloth about one meter wide and 1 ½-meter long. The women start the patterns and decorations by applying a clay slip (a liquified solution with high iron content). This application produces a black pigment after the cloth is soaked in the solution, dried, then subjected to another type of mud fermented in a clay jar for one year.
Finally, the mud paint is applied to outline geometrically designed motifs. The women rinse the mud, and the brown color remains.
Tuareg Blue Cloth — The Tuareg live in the northern part of Mali near the Timbuktu region of the Sahara Desert. They are notable in their clothing of various shades of deep blue.
The “blue people,” as they are known, wear the deep blues to protect them from the effects of the desert sun.
Ghana, in West Africa, is home to many cultural groups, including the Akan people. The country is large and has varied ecology and a coastline. The Akan people make the fabric called kente cloth. The Akans start their materials with bright-colored cloth strips of woven silk or cotton to create basket-like designs. In kente cloth, the colors denote passion, status, renewal, harmony, etc.
Everyone in Ghana now wears kente, especially for special occasions. Kente is so popular that it is now mass-produced in West Africa and other countries.
On the east coast of Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda achieved independence from the British in the mid-20th century. Kangas are made from printed fabric imported from Portugal originally in the mid-19th century. The Tanzanians and Kenyans wear the material in pairs. One Kenga is for a skirt or wrap and the other for a blouse. The women from Zanzibar, an island off of Tanzania, in the mid-20th century, requested printed fabric that used their designs. They chose the designs to reflect essential things in their lives. The first designs looked much like the feathers of a Kanga chicken, with white dots on black. So those women were the first to use wearable art to spread messages.
Leather has been used for clothing in Africa for centuries. The Masai and Iragw tribes made some of the most compelling examples, with beads and fringe.
The Buganda tribe makes the most ancient textile in human history. The bark cloth clothed the monarchs of Buganda, a kingdom hundreds of years old. To make bark clothworkers strip the bark from the Mutuba fig tree. The tree is wrapped to protect it. The bark is rolled up and beaten to soften it. Then the people working with the Bark boil it to soften it further. Stretching the bark and drying it for several days before baking it finishes the process. Now the bark is ready for decoration with either dyes or stamped designs.
The Bellefonte Art Museum of Central PA is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m., or by appointment.
Original post: https://www.statecollege.com/centre-county-gazette/african-designs-highlight-special-arts-gallery-at-bam/
Photo by Connie Cousins | For the Gazette