(Trans)local Fabric

Rosa Liebe

Global Interweavements in East and West African Textiles

Centuries before our „global era“ people maintained relationships of trade across long distances. Whenever there are migration, trade or other forms of mobility, cultural interchange takes place. Language, religion, cultural beliefs as well as trading goods and technical or artistic procedures are either the reason for, or a side effect of, people travelling from here to there and, more generally, to different places. In my project I point out aspects of mobility to be seen in East and West African fabric. I will exhibit some of the trade links we can see in these textiles and the journeys that often lie behind them (across both metaphorical and national borders). At the same time I will raise the question as to how we can define something, in this case fabric, as particularly African in a “local” sense.

Both East and West Africa are known for their colorful artistic fabric used in everyday life as well as for ceremonial or festive occasions. Imported influences in textiles are often easy to catch with the eye, where as in other cases they are nearly impossible to grasp, especially if the beholder is not aware of the respective historical and cultural background of the local specificities.

As mentioned in the Chronicles of Kilwa (Tanzania) of the early 16th century, fabric brought from abroad was used as a means of payment so as to acquire land. If one believes the Chronicles Kilwa itself was bought up with bulks of fabric so long that it would have been possible to encircle with them the whole island. In fact using textiles as currency especially for land bargaining was more or less common up until the late 19th century in many East and West African countries.

Originally Kente was a woven cloth worn only by royal people of West Africa. As early as in the 17th century people of the Asante imported silk from Asian countries to be used in Kente weaving. The fabric went through another transformation when synthetic yarn offering special effects was added. But even today this fabric is highly prestigious and of great value.

In Eastern Africa a fabric known as Kanga or Leso is used as part of a social communication system, as apart from everyday objects there are also proverbs or sayings in Swahili printed on them. East African woman have been wearing Kangas for centuries now. Most of these colorful cotton prints are imported goods. This may be the reason for occasional misspellings in Swahili on this fabric as almost every Kanga is printed in India.

Beginning in the 1960s Nigerian designers have been the main customers of Austrian and other European embroidery and lace manufacturers. Notably the laces produced for West Africa are slightly different from those which are produced to be sold within the European market. The designs and patterns seem to have gone through more than just one stage of being „africanised“ as the products have always been harmonized with local fabric designs. Therefore and also because these fabrics have a unique social status, people refer to them as African laces, even though they are imported goods from Europe. At present a giant wave of cheap laces from China is swamping the West African market, making laces more common and affordable as a side effect but also possibly endangering the trade in European laces.

Waxprint Batik has its origin in Indonesia although western Africa is known for its trademarked waxprints with slightly distinct printing techniques. As the Dutch originally brought this particular technique to West Africa in the 19th century their imitations of the Javanese prints were not too magnificent. Africans appropriated these prints with local designs and positively affected their global appearance – until waxprint became „West African“.


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