Textiles and social engagement: the British Museum’s touring exhibition ‘Social Fabric: African Textiles Today’ would appear made for the William Morris Gallery. It is the last stop on a 15-month tour of four English museums, and the original designs and the larger societal concerns they reflect would be sure to please the Victorian Renaissance man who once inhabited the venue.
The exhibits hail from the eastern and southern parts of Africa, numbering kanga from Kenya and Tanzania, capulana from Mozambique as well as shweshwe from South Africa. The printed and factory-woven textiles are the canvas for social, political and religious themes, carrying a multitude of patterns and inscriptions. The visual language is bold and the colours bright. The cloths are intrinsic to their communities, playing an important part in ceremonies at various stages of a person’s life. Fabric can also celebrate important events and people, like the 2010 World Cup in South Africa or Nelson Mandela, as seen in the exhibition on a capulana, a traditional wrap-around garment.
Examples of contemporary art and fashion from African nations and the African diaspora that take inspiration from the textiles are also on display. Artist Lawrence Lemaoana deploys kanga to comment on notions of power in post-Apartheid South Africa, whereas Christine Mhando of London fashion label CHiCHia uses text from traditional pieces in her clothing designs.
Until 29 May 2016, William Morris Gallery, London