Museum Displays Intricately Beautiful West African Textiles

The beauty and diversity of West African textiles will be on display starting April 8 at the MHC art museum. The exhibition boasts a colorful array of more than fifty objects featuring costumes, hats, jackets, blankets, and masks reflecting traditional textile designs from the peoples of Benin and Ghana, among others. All the objects are part of the personal collection of Roda and Gilbert Graham.

West Africans draw inspiration for their designs from their cultures and from the spiritual world. Evidence of this is seen on spoons, carved calabashes (gourds), gold weights, pendants, pottery designs, designs on mud walls, in the details carved on house posts or on masks, and in the traditionally patterned fabrics of Africa.

>>> An elephant mask from Cameroon
Africans tend to wear their art rather than hang it on a wall. Their designs carry meanings integral to each culture. In the culture of Benin, a coiled snake supports the world; should the snake become uneasy, his nervous undulations can cause earthquakes. Famous motifs of the Bambara people include antelope heads, turtles, lizards, snakes, fish, masks, and geometric images. The use of motifs on fabric may represent the rank of the person wearing them. In Zaire, tribesmen produce twenty-foot lengths of fabric made from beaten palm, which is then appliquéd and stitched with black thread. The particular fabric created in this method can be worn only by the king and his wives. In Ghana, silk Kente cloth is woven in a pattern of stripes and decorated squares, each square telling a story with symbols and decorative lines.

Most African cloth is woven on looms that produce strips between one and a half and twelve inches wide. The strips are sewn together to form large textiles, blankets, and clothing. The strips may be made of plain or decorated cotton, silk, or synthetics. The processes of appliqué, tie-dye, wax-resist dyes, stamping, and printing are also used in creating these textiles. Western designers have "discovered" African textiles, and are now copying the popular patterns, producing and selling the garments in department stores across America.