Kangas are a form of textile associated with Swahili-speaking cultures of East Africa.
Their design is said to have been inspired by cotton handkerchiefs brought to the region by Portuguese traders. Local women stitched together two rows of three handkerchiefs to make a rectangular cloth. Later these were manufactured as printed cotton cloths, usually sold in pairs and used as clothing (a wrap skirt and shoulder cover), as a baby or child carrier, or as a bag. The name kanga is related to the Swahili term for guinea fowl and the textiles often feature a spotted background, reminiscent of the bird’s plumage. The kanga is also distinctive for the text which appears at the bottom centre of the textile. These can include proverbs, slogans and sayings and make the kanga an important communicative tool.
The huge range and diversity of kangas produced made them a compelling focus for the Fashioning Africa collecting project. Two members of the Collecting Panel – Tony Kalume and MaryFrances Lukera – told us about the important social and political role these textiles play in East Africa. 25 examples were acquired for Brighton Museum’s permanent collection. This post provides a brief introduction to three of them.
The first example carries an image of Pope Francis and the wording “His Holiness Pope Francis Welcome to Kenya”, and commemorates the Pontiff’s visit to the country in November 2015. During his visit the Pope met the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, held meetings with various members of the clergy and an open mass at the University of Nairobi, and visited a slum neighbourhood. Huge crowds turned out to welcome him. Christianity is the predominant religion of Kenya and approximately a quarter of the country’s population are Roman Catholic. This kanga was purchased at Gala Clothwear on Biashara Street, Nairobi, Kenya on 2 June 2017 for 475 Kenyan shillings.
The second kanga provides an example of the use of this textile form to promote a political agenda. This pair of kangas were used as part of election campaigning by the Jubilee Party, a Kenyan political group founded on 8 September 2016 following the merger of 11 smaller parties. The kangas, which features the Party’s name, colours and logo of joined hands, were given out to supporters during the 2017 general election. The election, which was marred by violence and unrest (and ultimately had to be repeated), saw the Jubilee Party secure a plurality of seats in Parliament. Jubilee party leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, was re–elected president. This pair were also acquired on 2 June 2017 (the week in which election campaigning began) from a Rivatex (a Kenyan textile manufacturer) outlet on Biashara Street, Nairobi, for 450 Kenyan shillings.
This kanga was designed by artist Kawira Mwirichia (b.1986) in 2017 as part of her To Revolutionary Type Love series. Mwirichia is a Kenya-based artist and activist. As she has described, Kenya has two forms of art market: one for art and craft inspired by traditional forms and one for contemporary art. The series of kangas she created seeks to generate a dialogue between these different art markets. The kangas also celebrate queer love. Mwirichia has said that she aims to create a unique kanga for every country of the world, the design of which is inspired by pivotal moment in that country’s fight for LGBTQ rights. This kanga commemorates the battle for LGBTQ rights in Kenya. The text at the bottom “Penzi langu halali” can be translated as “My love is valid”. Currently, the Kenyan government does not recognise relationships between people of the same sex; same-sex marriage is banned under the Kenyan Constitution and sexual relationships between men are a punishable felony. For more information about the series visit the WePresent website.
These kangas were acquired as part of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s Fashioning Africa project, which was supported by a grant awarded through the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Collecting Cultures scheme. Museum staff are grateful to Kenya-based arts collective The Nest, to Sunny Dolat and to Nicola Stylianou for making these acquisitions possible.
- Visit the Fashioning Africa website to find out about changing fashion in Africa post-1960
Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art / Member of the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition team