Grace Ndiritum Video still from Lying Down Textiles, from Still Life, 2005-7, 4-screen color video installation, Courtesy the artist.

The Rich Heritage of African Textiles in Contemporary Practice

Abdoulaye Konaté, Gris-gris blanc (White gris-gris), 2006, Cotton, 90-1/2 x 196-3/4", Courtesy the artist.

Owusu-Ankomah, Movement Nr. 13, 2004, Acrylic on canvas, 19-3/4 x 23-5/8", Courtesy ARTCO Gallery, Herzogenrath, Germany. Photo: Rüdiger Lubricht.

Malick Sidibé, Untitled, 2005, Gelatin silver print, 15-3/4 x 11-7/8", Courtesy CAAC – the Pigozzi Collection, Geneva. © Malick Sidibé.

“Fancy” print cotton textile from Akosombo Textiles Limited, Accra, Ghana, 2007.

Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko, Sibu VIII, from Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, 2003-6, Pigment ink on cotton rag paper, 15-3/4 x 10-1/2", Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery Cape, Cape Town.

Rikki Wemega-Kwawu, Kente for the Space Age, 2007 (detail), Used phone cards and plastic twine, Courtesy ARTCO Gallery, Herzogenrath, Germany. Photo: Jutta Melchers.

Sokari Douglas Camp, Woman with Palm Leaf Skirt, 1986, Steel, paint, and crayon, 70-1/6 x 27-15/16 x 22-13/16", Collection of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Purchased with funds provided by the Annie Laurie Aitken Endowment.


Grey Art Gallery
New York University
100 Washington
Square East
New York
The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles /
Recent Art

September 16-
December 6, 2008

This landmark exhibition presents some 60 contemporary paintings, sculptures, videos, and photographs by artists living in Africa and abroad alongside a selection of mid- 20th-century and recent African textiles. The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles / Recent Art, illuminates the connections and continuities between past and recent modes of African artistic expression. The exhibition also draws attention to vital and often exuberant African textile traditions which have too often been relegated to the long shadows cast by classical African sculpture.

In presenting a broad range of media and artistic approaches, The Poetics of Cloth demonstrates how a number of African artists—coming from different nations and cultural milieus—share a common engagement with one of the most fundamental forms of African expression. The show is curated by Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery, and is accompanied by a 112-page illustrated catalogue. A parallel exhibition, The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design without End, which is simultaneously on view in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been organized by Alisa LaGamma in conjunction with Christine Giuntini, respectively Curator and Textile Conservator in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The Essential Art of African Textiles highlights the enduring significance of African textiles as a major form of aesthetic experience across the continent and is on view until March 22.

The installations at the Grey Art Gallery and the Met juxtapose contemporary African artworks with the textile traditions that inform them. The Poetics of Cloth focuses on key West African textile traditions including: Ghanaian kente and adinkra, Malian hunter’s tunics, factory-produced “fancy” and “Dutch wax” prints, indigo-dyed fabrics, and Nigerian Igbo wrappers borrowed from the Met, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and private collections.

One of El Anatsui’s (b. 1944, Anyako, Ghana) shimmering monumental “textiles,” inspired by kente cloths and fashioned from discarded bottle tops, wrappers, and detritus, will be exhibited alongside a mid-to-late 20th-century strip-woven kente cloth and a more recent kente woven in the workshop of  Samuel Cophie (b. 1939, Anyako, Ghana) in Bonwire, Ghana, in 2007. An early wood relief by Anatsui, Leopard Cloth, 1993, refers to nisibi, a code of emblems used by the Leopard (Ekpé)—a secret society in southeastern Nigeria. Nearby will hang a monumental work by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu, which is fashioned from used telephone cards joined by plastic twine, again recalling traditional Ghanaian kente cloths. Small abstract paintings by Ghanaian artist Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Accra, Ghana) — who, like Wemega-Kwawu, makes his American museum debut, and whose works are also inspired by kente cloths — round out this grouping.

Abdoulaye Konaté’s (b. 1953 Diré, Mali) monumental Gris-gris blanc, 2006,references an ancient Malian textile tradition by echoing the shape of a traditional Bamana hunter shirt — a large horizontal rectangle with a smaller square attached to the bottom edge, meant to cover the groin during battle — that will be shown nearby. On view in this section is Plantes du Jardin, 2003, a textile work by Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, a collective of six Malian artists who are largely responsible for having recovered and elevating bogolan, a traditional textile technique usually translated as “mud cloth,” to a symbol of national and even pan-national identity. In a recent series they fabricate artworks by sewing linear and geometrical designs into double-layered cotton fabrics and which are inspired by the thick cotton hats worn by Malian hunters.

Another grouping includes one of Yinka Shonibare’s (b. 1962 London) signature sculptures, 19th Century Kid (Charles Dickens), 2000, of a headless small mannequin wearing Victorian-style garments made from “Dutch wax”  print cotton fabrics based on late-19th-century Indonesian batiks produced by Dutch and British manufacturers and sold in West Africa. Nearby is Grace Ndiritu’s (b. 1976 Birmingham) Still Life, 2005-7, a large-scale 4-screen video installation that depicts the artist concealing and revealing parts of her body with boldly patterned factory-produced wax prints purchased in Mali. Also included in this section are black-and-white portraits by renowned Malian photographer Malick Sidibé (b. 1936 Soloba, French Sudan) which were commissioned by Senegalese-Malian fashion designer Lamine Badian Kouyaté, whose line is called Xuly Bët. The textiles that link these contemporary works are represented by a selection of “Dutch wax” and “fancy prints,” produced by Akosombo Textiles Limited (ATL), the largest textile manufacturer in Ghana. Many of these fabrics are titled and communicate specific meanings or attitudes. Some are commemorative cloths, for example, a celebration of the Pope’s visit to Ghana, or were commissioned by organizations, such as the Ghana Hairdressers and Beauticians Association. Others depict contemporary household appliances such as irons, and still others are inspired by traditional Asante and Ewe kente patterns.

A striking Ghanaian funerary adinkra cloth, made in a pre-colonial Akan textile tradition, anchors another grouping in the exhibition. Adinkra textiles are hand-printed with dye made from tree bark and applied with carved calabash stamps. Each of the more than 700 symbols is derived from a proverb, historical event, or spiritual axiom. Displayed nearby will be the paintings of Owusu-Ankomah (b. 1956 Sekondi, Ghana), along with works by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu (b. 1959 Sekondi, Ghana). Both incorporate adinkra designs in their abstract paintings.
ïchi (b. 1941, Ain Beida, Algeria), who now lives in Paris, is represented by excerpts from a larger installation, 7 Variations autour de l’Indigo, from 2002. Employing indigo for its spiritual associations, he focuses on the number 7, a mystical number in Sufism. In this work, traditional and classic symbols are silkscreened onto handwoven silk banners combining verses by poet and mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (c. 717-801) with Koraïchi’s elegant calligraphy and designs. A piece by Nike Okundaye (b. 1954, Ogidi, Nigeria), who is known for her textile works employing adire, the resist-dyed indigo cloth used for wrappers by Yourbua women, not only depicts traditional symbols but also incorporates American quilting techniques. Also featured in this section is Musical Materiality, 1998, by Senegalese artist Viyé Diba (b. 1954, Karantabla, Senegal), who uses fabric swatches in a manner recalling colorful patchwork clothing of the Mouride in a work that hovers between sculpture, installation, and musical instrument.
An important theme explored throughout the exhibition will be the way in which textiles and cloth function as carriers of meaning beyond mere indicators of identity. South African artist Sue Williamson’s (b. 1941 Litchfield, England) Pass the Parcel, Jacob, 2007, a work comprised of 21 collages, underscores the role of a traditional garment worn as key evidence in the well-publicized rape trial of Jacob Zuma, the recently-elected President of the African National Congress. Zuma claimed a wrapper worn by the victim constituted a sexual invitation that, as a Zulu warrior, he was obliged to initiate. This argument placed the wax-print fabric at the center of a wider debate as to its meaning. On the other hand, Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp’s (b. 1958, Buguma, Nigeria) life-size steel figures demonstrate a successful intervention of a female artist into a traditionally male-dominated art world — formerly women were not allowed to carve or sculpt. Woman with a Palm Leaf Skirt, 1986, is one of several works inspired by Kalabari rituals of southeastern Nigeria in which female initiates are presented to the community dressed in prestigious cloth wrappers. Also in this grouping are color photographic portraits of chic Johannesburg youths by South African Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko (b. 1977, Cape Town). Her series Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, 2003-6, documents dynamic individuals whose style and pizzazz challenged cookie-cutter “ideals.”

The 112-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition will include 48 color illustrations. In his essay Seeing and Wearing: Textiles in West Africa renowned Africanist scholar John Picton addresses the relationship between textile and dress, as well as aspects of pattern and texture, local and transnational histories. Award-winning Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho contributes an essay titled Ghanaian Kente: Cloth and Song. Trained as a weaver, he describes the “rhythm-based aesthetics” of this “national cloth of Ghana” as well as the cultural and sociological aspects of textiles as clothing in Africa. An essay by Lynn Gumpert surveys the “contested territories” of exhibiting works by contemporary artists living in Africa and abroad, and examines issues surrounding the juxtaposition of recent work with “traditional” African arts.Finally, the book will contain color plates of works by all 16 artists featured in The Poetics of Cloth with entries by Jennifer S. Brown, Lydie Diakhaté, Janet Goldner, Lynn Gumpert, John Picton, and Doran H. Ross.

The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles / Recent Art is made possible in part by The Coby Foundation; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts; CULTURESFRANCE; New York University’s Africa House, Africana Studies, and Office of Global Programs; Jane Wesman Public Relations; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust. Public programs are supported by the Grey’s Inter/National Council.


El Anatsui, Oga Cavorting in Lace, 2007, Aluminum and copper wire, 111 x 111", Collection of the Hudgins Family, New York.

Grace Ndiritu (British, b.1976), The Nightingale, 2003, Video; 7:01 minutes, Collection of the artist.

African Textiles: Their Traditions, Influences, and Unending Design

Seydou Keïta (Malian, 1921-2001), Untitled (Two Women and a Girl in front of a Peugeot), 1959-60, print 1997, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph and Ceil Mazer Foundation Inc. Gift, 1997 (1997.361).

Seydou Keïta (Malian, 1921-2001), Untitled (Olympia),1956–57, print 1996, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 1997 (1997.267).

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b.1944), Between Earth and Heaven, 2006, Aluminum, copper wire; 86 3/4 x 10 ft. 6", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Fred M. and Rita Richman, Noah-Sadie K. Wachtel Foundation Inc., David and Holly Ross, Doreen and Gilbert Bassin Family Foundation and William B. Goldstein Gifts, 2007, (2007.96).

Kente Prestige Cloth (detail), Ghana; Ewe peoples, 19th century, Cotton, silk; Warp 74 in. (188 cm), weft 9 ft. 1 7/8 in. (279 cm), The British Museum, London (Af1934,0307.165), Provenance: Collected in West Africa between 1880 and 1900 by Charles Beving Sr.

El Anatsui (Ghanaian, b.1944), Between Earth and Heaven, 2006, Aluminum, copper wire; 86 3/4 x 10 ft. 6", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Fred M. and Rita Richman, Noah-Sadie K. Wachtel Foundation Inc., David and Holly Ross, Doreen and Gilbert Bassin Family Foundation and William B. Goldstein Gifts, 2007, (2007.96).

Adire Cloth: Olokun (detail), Nigeria; Yoruba, first half of the 20th century, Cotton, indigo dye; 69 5/16 x 77 3/16 in. (176 x 196 cm), The British Museum (Af1971.35.17).


The Metropolitan
Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
at 82nd Street
New York
Michael C. Rockefeller Wing
The Essential Art
of African Textiles:
Design Without End

September 30, 2008-
March 29, 2009

Africa's extraordinary legacy of textile arts, with its explosive color and complex graphic statements infuses these more than 40 works dating from the early 19th century to the present — including a spectacular silk and cotton kente prestige cloth woven in Ghana during the 19th century and a 30-foot-long installation work by contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare. The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End highlights the enduring significance of textiles as a major form of aesthetic expression across the continent. While examining some of the finest and earliest preserved examples of different regional textile traditions, the exhibition relates these to works by eight contemporary artists, who draw inspiration from textiles in their explorations of other media ranging from sculpture, painting, and photography to video and installation art. Works selected for the exhibition are drawn primarily from the collections of the Metropolitan and the British Museum as well as several private collections in the U.S. and Europe.

Dazzling textile traditions figured importantly in the earliest recorded accounts of visitors to sub-Saharan Africa, dating to as early as the ninth century. Historically textiles also constituted one of the primary commodities imported into sub-Saharan Africa, through trade routes that extended south across the Sahara from North Africa until the 15th century and subsequently by Europeans along the Gold Coast. Among the earliest documented examples of West African textile traditions were those collected by European textile manufacturers seeking new markets for their own exports in the 19th century. A significant collection given to the British Museum in 1934 consisted of the African textiles gathered in West Africa before 1913 by Charles Beving, who was a partner of a Manchester firm. More than a dozen of these works, which were gathered as part of market research to determine regional tastes, figure centrally in this exhibition.

The myriad distinctive regional traditions represented include the expansive monumental wool and cotton strip-woven architectural elements created in Mali and Niger; a rich range of deep blue indigo, resist-dyed textile genres produced in Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon; textile panels composed and woven by Igbo women and Yoruba men in Nigeria, to be wrapped around the body as apparel; and a series of the impressive voluminous robes and tunics that have been designed from regional fabrics from Algeria to Nigeria. The techniques used to create these works will be examined along with the various cultural aesthetic criteria they embrace. Across this diverse corpus of works, certain overarching technical and formal approaches as well as aesthetic affinities will be explored.

These various examples of regional vernaculars on display will provide a foundation and points of departure for consideration of 16 works by contemporary artists who are conversant with this highly sophisticated visual language. Ghanaian kente will appear in relation not only to Anatsui's "metal tapestry," but also to the abstract works on paper by Atta Kwami (b. 1956, Ghana). The bold graphic patterns of Malian woven and industrially manufactured "wax prints" are central focal points of the black-and-white photographic portraits produced in the Bamako studios of Seydou Keita (b. 1921-d. 2001, Mali) and Malick Sidibé (b. 1936, Mali). The longstanding interconnections between North and Western Africa are considered through a spectacular, densely inscribed Islamic protective tunic created by a Hausa artist from Nigeria during the 19th century and a series of the indigo dyed silk banners filled with the poetic textual prayers of a Sufi mystic from the installation work 7 Variations on Indigo by Rachid Koraïchi (b. 1947, Algeria). The transformative potential of textiles and the process whereby individuals selectively enhance and shape their identity through cloth defines the use of the classical textile genres featured and is addressed in both the imagery of the life-size figurative steel sculpture Nigerian Woman Shopping by Sokari Douglas Camp (b. 1958, Nigeria) and The Nightingale, a video by Grace Ndiritu (b. 1976, UK). Finally, the mural 100 Years by Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962, UK) considers the synergy between African textile design and that imported from outside, and how those distinctions have blurred and become unrecognizable. This unique conversation between "contemporary" and "classical" forms of expression will establish the continuity between their aesthetics and enhance an appreciation of their content.

The exhibition will be accompanied by education programs designed for a wide range of audiences, including a talk by Doran H. Ross, Senior Research Scholar at UCLA, followed by a panel discussion on October 4 in the Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall; a conversation with El Anatsui on the afternoon of November 9 in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium; a Sunday at the Met lecture program on February 1; and a subscription lecture, "African Textiles," by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, on October 24 in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Information on these and other programs – including gallery talks, family programs, and films – will be listed on the Museum's website at The participation of contemporary artists in all of these events was coordinated and supported by the Grey Art Gallery and Africa House of New York University.

A publication produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press will accompany this exhibition. Public programs including discussions with many of the featured artists will be organized by the Metropolitan.

The exhibition is organized by Alisa LaGamma in collaboration with Christine Giuntini, Textile Conservator, in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with the generous cooperation of The British Museum. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Emil Micha, Senior Graphic Design Manager; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Metropolitan Museum's Design Department.

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Fred and Rita Richman, and The Ceil & Michael E. Pulitzer Foundation, Inc.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the British Museum, London.

Prestige Gown, Cameroon, Grassfields region, 19th-20th century, Cotton, wool; 86-1/4 x 45", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Dr. and Mrs. Sidney Clyman Gift and Rogers Fund, 1987 (1987.163).