Financial Times

Read about the Material World and EVA in the Financial Times

Textiles are woven deep into West African culture and history. Now its contemporary artists are using them to poweful effect.

To create "Nelson's Ship in a Bottle", his 2010-2012 commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Yinka Shonibare placed a scaled replica of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory inside a large perspex bottle, and sealed it with a cork. The ship's 80 brass cannons, hand-carved figureheads and networks of rigging were all there, 30 times smaller than the original. But rather than plain white canvas, a throng of colourful batik sails billowed from the miniature masts.

Dutch-wax cotton - inspired by indonesian batik, originally mass produced in Holland, and sold to the colonies of Africa - has become Shonibare's trademark material. The artist, who grew up between LAgos and London, explains that he is "fascinated by the cultural confusion", inherent in the cloth. "I chose my fabrics to exemplify how signss of national or ethnic identity are carefully constructed...These fabrics although Dutch, have now become an important element of African culture and a symbol of African identity".

He is not alone in his prediction of the cloth. At the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York this May, eight of the 17 participating galleries featured artists working with textiles, whether by incorporating them into sculpture , working directly with weaving or sewing, or referring to fabric patterns and forms. And in London, last week Making & Unmaking opened at Camden Arts Centre, a show that juxtaposes historic African textiles with contemporary cloth-based pieces.

Although this reflects a more general turn towards textiles in contemporary art, many artists from west Africa and its diaspora are making work that responds to the way textile aesthetics, production and trade are woven into the continent's history and culture. Among them is Mailan artist Abdoulaye Konaté, currently on show at the Arken Museum of Modern Art Copenhagen, who is making and impact with his large scale wall hangings, hand-stitched in brilliantly coloured cotton.

Konaté began using cloth because other materials were difficult to get in Mali, but it has since become integral to the meaning of his work. Cotton is the country's top export, and muchof the population relies on it for livelihood. His pieces are sewn and woven by Malian men in the traditional way, while local women dye the cloth. "I use textiles in the same way other artists use paint,steel or marble - it is my colour palette and medium for artistic expression", he says.

The way textiles infuse Konaté's work with a sense of place should not be seen simply as an expression of "Negritude" -  a consciousness of and pride in African cultures and aesthetics - warns curator of Irish biennial EVA, Koyo Kouoh (also of the educational and artistic programme at 1:54). In a recent essaym she points out that Konaté's "use of cultic elements is not meant as a claim of a cultural territory, but rather as a reference to the existing aesthetic wealth available in any culture". After all, fabric has been accepted as an artistic medium in teh west since the 1960s when art began to embrace language and materials of popular culture. in the past two decades, artists such as Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and Rosemarie Trockel have asserted its validity even futher.

"I'm so weary of generalisations. I think everyone has such a personal drive to create," sighs Nana Oforiatta Ayim, a cultural historian and creative director of Gallery 1957 in Accra, when asked why textiles might have a particular resonance with west African artists. Yet as she speaks, she realises that the Ghanian artists she works most closely with - Zohra Opoku, Sergi Attuweki Clottey and Ibrahim Mahama - have all explored them in some way. "Maybe because they've grown up with the idea of coth being a strong, aesthetic carrier of meaning it has filtered into their artwork", she says.

Oforiatta Ayim explains that in Ghanian and Nigerian society, nearly all cloth communicates meaningm whether through the proverbs that many are named after, the symbolism of its colours, or the patterns that denote family lineage.

Textiles, including cherished battle dress passed down over generations, are also instrumental to the vibrant festivals - which she describes as "incredible living artworks" - that take place in the Ashanti region of Ghana.

“Until relatively recently,” she says, “the older generation of artists have been experimenting with canvas and paint, and seeing how far that could go. I think this generation now is expanding its forms hugely using materials in their environment. “She points to the work of Attukewei Clottey as well as Ghana-born, Nigeria based artist El Anatsui. Their eye-catching hanging assemblages – constructed, respectively , out of small squares of plastic gallon containers and found metal such as bottle tops – bear a clear resemblance to the prized Ghanian Kente cloth, made from the interwoven strips of silk and cotton.

London-based artist, Godfried Donkor uses lace to draw parallels between present-day Ghana where he was raised, and Europe’s Past. “Lace is prestigious in west Africa,” he explains. “It is used for ceremonies of birth, weddings and funerals. It has value, beauty and status attached to it. This was also how lace was seen in Europe in the 18th century before industrial lace was produced.”

Researching the history of lace-making in Limerick, Ireland, for an installation at EVA, he unearthed stories of young girls toiling over needlework in their homes, convents, factories and even asylums. They spoke to him of confinement and solitude, and to express that he produced two garments made from Ghanian commercial lace; a jumpsuit and a straitjacket. “Textiles are like moving paintings; they are a theatre, a stage, a backdrop,” Donkor says. “We cover our bodies with different fabrics because of how it makes us feel, what memories it gives us, and where it takes our imagination.”

Despite the great variety in the way they use textiles , these artists have discovered a resource that is rich in codes and associations. Cloth communicates, effortlessly. As the Nigerian fashion designer Duro Olowi says, wherever you are, “selecting and wearing real clothes in real life is the most powerful and emotionally truthful expression of personal identity.” This is abundantly demonstrated in Making & Unmaking, which he has curated. Featuring centuries-old weaving from his own collection. It explores the endless ways in which artists can engage with cloth – be it as subtle as picking a patterned backdrop for a portrait, or grappling with its semiotics, as Shonibare does with his work “Butterfly Kid (boy) II”.

This piece comprises a mannequin in the garb of a wealthy Victorian boy, with leather ankle boots, stockings, breeches and jacket. But butterfly wings sprout from his back, a globe replaces his head and his fine suit is tailored in vividly patterned Dutch-wax cotton; the assumptions that might normally accompany such an outfit have been scrambled and undermined. As with “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”, the bizarre boy is playfully disorientating, at once exposing identity as a complicated construct, and the fun to be had in taking it all apart.

By Lily Le Brun
Published 26 June 2016





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