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Textiles on a Tuesday

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A delve into Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s African textiles collection…

A few weeks ago I headed out to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s artefact store, a huge place filled to the brim with intriguing goodies, old and new.

There I met up with Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art here at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, so that she could lift the lids on some very exciting boxes containing some equally exciting African textiles.

After snapping on her protective latex gloves, Helen, along with our Collections Assistant Stephen KiskoKanga Textile, carefully laid across the table this striking Kanga textile, originating from Kenya in the 1940s. Kanga textiles usually begin as one long strip of fabric, before being printed with a vibrant pattern such as the one we see here, and being cut in half to create a two-piece outfit. Often, prints and motifs are incorporated into African textiles as a way of allowing wearers to make subtle political statements; this particular textile, which is adorned with the distinctive Swastika symbol and branded with an image of the Nazi, Japanese and previous Italian flags waving in unison with one another, is likely to represent the ally relationship between these three countries during WWII.

After carefully folding the Kanga textile back away into its tissue-cushioned box, Helen and Stephen unearthed this breathtaking GhBatakari Gownanaian Batakari Gown. The immaculately hand-written tag hanging from the neck of this giant garment labels it a “witch doctor’s dress” from Kumasi, a city in Ghana’s Ashanti kingdom. This gown was most likely acquired when Kumasi was invaded in the Ashanti Campaign, a British punitive expedition which ran through 1873 and 1874. The implications of this left the atmosphere around the table feeling heavy for some time, as Helen, Stephen and I paused for a moment to admire the piece and its amazing workmanship. The protective amulets we see adorning the front of this gown are covered with various hides, such as crocodile skin. Traditionally, these amulets are often filled with miniature scrolls bearing sections of the Quran, as a form of spiritual protection from negativity or bad luck.

Next, Helen and Stephen showed me this Sierra Leonean man’s coat. This ginormous garment was collected by Thomas Alldridge, the Honorary Correspondent Secretary for the Man's dress
Royal Colonial Institute in Sierra Leone during the early 1900s. Alldridge spent his free time studying indigenous craft techniques and collecting Sierra Leonean crafts and textiles, interested in the potential for trading these pieces with the United Kingdom. Similar to the Ghanaian Batakari gown, this fabulous coat is hand-dyed and hand-woven from individual strips of fabric, creating this stripe-like pattern.

Finally, the last storage box of the morning was removed from the shelf, and inside it was a Nigerian Mmwo Mask, also known as a Maiden Spirit Mask. Traditionally, Nigerian men dress up in such Mmwo Maskmasks in order to look like young maidens, as a way of remembering the spirits of beautiful girls who have passed away.

After many gasps of awe, plenty of snapping on my camera and much careful rustling of tissue paper, my trip to the store was over and I was ready to go home and flick through the photographs of the beautiful textiles
I’d been shown. It was amazing to have in front of me so many authentic and unique pieces, each with their own history and back-story.

It was these sorts of textile pieces from Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s African Collection that originally inspired Helen Mears to conceive Fashion Cities Africa. Therefore, whilst it’s extremely exciting that we are currently in the process of acquiring and commissioning contemporary fashion pieces for the exhibition, it’s also important that we spend some time appreciating the garments that kick-started this fabulous brainchild of Helen’s!

A hugely interesting element of contemporary African fashion is the ways in which many people now combine faith with fashion and tradition with trends – so it’s been super interesting to see how elements of older textile pieces, such as those we have tucked away in our store, still influence fashion today.

Thanks for reading, all!

Until next time,
Ruby McGonigle, front of house team member at the Royal Pavilion