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FRONTLINES

MASTERPIECE

WEST AFRICAN NARROW-STRIP CLOTH ANDRÉS MORAGA AND BEVERLEY BIRKS

Despite recent advances in the world of textile art, Africa remains one of the least appreciated areas of interest. The discovery of a beautiful West African narrow-strip cloth once owned by the influential 20th century French fashion designer Paul Poiret is therefore of great potential significance.

THE FORTY YEARS IN THE WAKE of Roy Sieber’s 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York have seen the emergence of several new areas of scholarship and collecting in various traditions from across the African continent. That groundbreaking survey, ‘African Textiles and Decorative Art’ – the first to address the diversity and wealth of African textile expression as art – was enormously influential, particularly for a generation of African art scholars who have now come of age.

Kuba textiles and raffia weavings from Central Africa (especially the Congo region) represent one of the most exciting bodies of material ‘rediscovered’ in Europe and the US during the 1980s, generating several exhibitions and catalogues at the time. Similarly, hennadyed wool textiles from Berber groups in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco, came to attention in the early 2000s, when they were first seen in large numbers at several HALI Fairs in London. Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard’s studies of Ashanti and Ewe stripwoven cloths, and Fante fighting flags from Ghana, can also be credited for the greater popularisation of West African textiles.

There have been several other excellent exhibitions over the years, including ‘Le Boubo–C’est Chic’ (2002), originating in Basel and also shown in Paris; and more recently ‘The Essential Art of African Textiles’ at the Metropolitan Museum (2009), curated by Alisa La Gamma and Christine Guintini, including works from the British Museum’s Beving Collection (HALI 159, pp.70-73). The Textile Museum’s recent exhibition ‘Weaving Abstraction’ in Washington presented another high water mark for raising awareness and appreciation of African textile art, and is potentially a paradigm changer (HALI 169, pp.80-87). Yet until now, few exhibitions have been truly influential enough to change the discourse, or excite people in the way that MOMA’s 1984 blockbuster ‘Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art’, did with African and Oceanic tribal sculpture.

As a result of the scarcity of top quality scholarship, as well as the lack of large-scale presentations to provide depth and context, there is little understanding or sophistication as to what truly constitutes a masterpiece in this field. In ‘tribal art’ circles, where sculpture gets all the attention, textile art masterpieces are much rarer and far more difficult to find. Even more elusive is a great piece with provenance – the magical words these days for any type of art, particularly for museum acquisition. The colonial-era administrators, military officials, and families, who are often the best source for early material, seldom bothered much when it came to documenting or acquiring textiles. In the early 2oth century, European museums were primarily interested in figurative sculpture – and little has changed substantially since then.

This is why the discovery of a beautiful West African textile 1, 2 that once belonged to Paul Poiret is an exciting event. Moreover, its early date of acquisition – probably around 1910 – is also significant.

The exact origin of this cloth is difficult to pinpoint. Textiles have been traded for centuries in a large area of the Sahel and Western Africa, and can turn up very far from where they were made. Camel caravans have plied their trade from the northeast all the way to Morocco, and south into entry points for the West African coastal kingdoms, made rich through trade in slaves and ivory. There are many variants of similarly patterned blankets and related cloths produced by different ethnic groups in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. This can be attributed, according to Duncan Clarke, to the successive interactions over the past millennium between Mande and protoMande peoples from Mali and local groups as a result of both migration and trade.

Design similarities to various published examples suggest at first sight that it is a Mende cloth from Sierra Leone (see Peggy Gilfoy, Patterns of Life, West African Strip Weaving Traditions, 1987, pp.58 and 62). Yet the texture of the cotton is also very similar to kpokpo cloths made by the Vai in Liberia (Alistair & Venice Lamb, Sierra Leone Weaving, 1984; HALI 65,1992, pp.84-5). Two related weavings in the Musée Quai Branly in Paris are attributed to the Ivory Coast, but this is uncertain.

The blanket is constructed from ten stripwoven lengths of cotton, with non-repeating colour and supplementary design blocks, arranged in a 3/4/3 pattern sequence. As Gilfoy notes, “it is important to credit the influence of the type of equipment used in West African weaving on textile design. Perhaps one of the reasons narrow-strip looms originally developed and continue to be used today is that they can produce non-symmetrically designed cloths. The final composition is not a case of happenstance, but it is rather a carefully orchestrated rhythmic placement of design elements.”

This characteristic of non- or asymmetry is a defining, and much admired, aspect of the pan-African aesthetic. Here it extends to the subtle differences between the geometric configurations and colour juxtaposition of each block, achieved with the use of only three primary colours, blue, yellow and red. The pastel hues and modulated shades of blue of the pattern grid, set against the white ground, greatly contribute to the restrained elegance of the blanket.

It is possible that there is some hidden or esoteric numerical or mathematical knowledge conveyed or embedded in the discontinuous arrangement of the blocks. Certain West African divination systems, for example, make use of randomness and chance to arrive at meaningful configurations of divination objects that are translated into discontinuous markings or strokes in the sand that can be read by adepts.* This is the kind of investigation that would deeply enrich our understanding of

Strip woven cloth, probably Sierra-Leone, West African, late 19th/ early 20th century. Cotton, 1.30 x 1.88m (6'2" x 4'33⁄16"). Museum of Fine

Arts Boston; museum purchase with funds donated by Alan and Suzanne Dworsky and by Jeremy and Hanne Grantham, 2011.317

32 HALI ISSUE 171

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