Textile display gives peak into African culture
Colorful costumes serve special purposes in festival rituals.
This detail of the Fante Asafo fighting flag from Ghana
shows applique figures in scenes that represent the Fante resistance to
By Philip E. Bishop found at the Sentinel
July 12, 2006
(ZORA NEALE HURSTON NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS)
227 E. Kennedy Blvd.
Eatonville, FL 32751
With its spectacular display of African costumes and textiles, the Zora Neale
Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts has inaugurated a yearlong series of
exhibitions devoted to the living tradition of African textile art.
The current exhibition, titled "American Culture and African Textiles: An
Enduring Relationship," offers a vivid beginning. There are 24 objects on
view at the Eatonville gallery, most from the West African regions where the
Americas' African heritage originated.
The objects have been selected by guest curator Eric D. Robertson, a prominent
New York-based collector, gallery owner and consultant on African art.
The selection's twin centerpieces are two magnificent Yoruba Egungun (ancestor)
costumes. Each is built of layers of brightly colored fringes and adornments,
including spangles of pressed metal, shells and applique patches. According to
curator Robertson's statement, the costumes' intense colors and adornment serve
to rouse the Egungun ancestral spirits to action. Yoruba dancers wear such
costumes during festivals when they contact ancestral spirits and mime
ancestors' warnings and blessings. One costume at the Hurston shrouds a carved
wooded bird figurine, in place of the dancer's mask.
The ancestor costumes and an equally impressive beaded dance costume share a
palette of burnt orange, red and green. But color is just one of the design
principles shared easily across several examples here. The Igbo dance costume
shows the fluid command of abstract form that made African art so influential in
the rise of modernism.
The traditional arts of the Yoruba (centered in today's western Nigeria and
Republic of Benin) are a key source of African-American art and music. Two
lovely aso oke cloths, used as women's wrappers, exhibit a relaxed and subtle
taste for asymmetric design that reappears in African-American quilting, for
example. The connection will be apparent in January 2007, when the Hurston
collaborates with Orlando Museum of Art to exhibit the famous quilts of Gee's
Robertson has chosen works to showcase particular strengths of other West
African textile art. A handsome man's cloak from western Cameroon shows the
technique of old indigo dye resist. Against a deep blue base, applique patches
create what Robertson calls improvisational motifs across the breast and
An indigo woman's wrapper from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) exhibits the
same understated invention, with its central field of opposing feathered shafts.
Here, as often in this exhibition, the Western observer will encounter an exotic
and mysterious iconography. As Robertson explains, the signs and symbols of
African textile art often relate to ritual, secrets and social messages.
A few pieces are one-of-a-kind but still within the exhibition's rather flexible
boundaries. The beaded decoration of a Masai man's leather wrapper resonates
with the radiant burnt orange of a Zulu woman's hat.
A Fante Asafo fighting flag from Ghana is one of the show's few figurative
works. The Asafo military "companies" preserve the memory of Fante
resistance to Portuguese imperialism. In this example, applique figures are
splayed across the cloth rectangle, marching with shouldered weapons, fishing
with net and spear, and riding a fabulous two-headed goat.
Equally fabulous is a Haitian beaded mermaid on a cloth panel. This fanciful sea
creature is the only American work in this show. In fact, the
"relationship" is more the assertion of Robertson's curatorial essay
than anything evident in the work at hand.
There's also some danger in samp-ling Africa's traditional cultures -- at least
as different as Germans are from French -- without some attention to their
But such qualms do not distract from the exuberant splendor of these works of
art. In fact, visitors more familiar with the African textiles of pop culture
and fashion may find here more than they bargained for. These textiles vibrate
with an artistic energy that survived slavery to charge a whole continent with
the power of Africa. They ought to be seen to be believed.
Philip E. Bishop is professor of humanities at Valencia Community College.
What: "American Culture and African Textiles: An Enduring
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 2-5 p.m. Sunday (through Aug. 18).
Where: Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, 227 E. Kennedy Blvd.,
Cost: Donations accepted.