Friday, October 24, 2008

"Design Without End: Essential Art of African Textiles" at The Met

Display Cloth from Gambia, Early 19th century (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ceremonial Gown from the Cameroon Grasslands, 19th-20th centuries
(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Earlier this month, a small but superbly organized exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."Design Without End: Essential Art of African Textiles" organized by in-house curator, Alisa LaGamma demonstrates the richness of African textile art. Although exhibitions of this sort are anything but rare and the scholarship on the subject has been robust (and here I think of the work of John Picton, Joan Eicher and others), LaGamma's is unprecedented--at least as far as I know--in its focus on really old, many from dating from the 19th century, textiles from the British Museum and the Met's collections. Because they are fragile and prone to fading in normal lighting, the fabrics on show in "Design Without End" are normally kept away from view. So for connoisseurs and scholars of African textiles, this is a rare treat. A treasure. I could not help but wonder how these fabrics managed to survive in such great conditions before they entered the museum.

Hausa Protective Shirt, 19th century (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Among the most captivating things on show is the Hausa protective shirt whose entire surface is covered with texts, signs, symbols. The meticulous attention the calligrapher has paid to the task of penning the passages in Arabic, while motivated by a ritual imperative, is impressive, the visual effect almost hallucinatory. This kind of power shirt--different from the more prevalent examples in which ritual packets often containing Quranic or other sacred Islamic passages as well as ritually potent objects are sewn onto shirts/gowns--conveys so powerfully the metaphysical power of the written word: "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God"... and yes the Word is Power!

Grace Ndiritu, Nightingale, 2003 (video piece)(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

However, I thought that the inclusion of the work of contemporary African artists in the show was not particularly nuanced. The movement from the superb 19th and early 20th-century fabrics and dresses to recent works by few, well-chosen, contemporary African artists felt too jarring, even with the rather didactic placement of an Anatsui "metal cloth" in proximity with a 19th-century Akan kente cloth. The complex historical, discursive and social space in between them is significantly left unfilled in this show. Also I could not help but wonder why there were no examples of the ubiquitous yet visually compelling printed wax fabrics the tradition of which goes back to the 19th century; especially given that these textiles are the sources for the work of Yinka Shonibare and to a lesser extent Sokari Douglas Camp who are included in the show; and Grace Kwami (the mother of Atta Kwami who is in the show) as we learned in the son's panel presentation was herself a designer of printed wax fabrics. In any case, I cannot help but mention that Grace Ndiritu's video piece "Nightingale" is one of the key moments in the show. A fiercely poetic work in which the artist performs, in close up, a bewildering range of sartorial identities through a frenzied yet deft manipulation of a red, patterned shawl accompanied by Baba Maal's music, Ndiritu captures the essence of design without end.

The lecture and panel discussion organized as part of the opening on October 4 turned out to be as successful as the exhibition, judging by the list of participating panelists and audience. Among the highlights were the presentations by Mammadou Diouf and Zoe Strother (of Columbia University) in the panel of scholars, and by the artist Nike Okundaye (whose influence on contemporary adire textile art cannot be overstated) and fashion designer Duro Olowu who presented his new haute couture collection.

Yes, this is a nugget of an exhibition. Which is one more reason for LaGamma's reputation as a fine curator.

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