Christopher Spring, British Museum
Tremendous celebrations greeted the news in Kenya, his father’s homeland, of Barack Obama’s election, on November 4 2008, as 44th President of the United States – and of his re-election for a second term in November 2012. Thousands of kangas bearing his image were proudly worn throughout the land. The inscription in Kiswahili reads: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace’. This kanga is on display as part of a special temporary exhibition at the British Museum looking at the textile traditions of southern and eastern Africa.
Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design; they are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment in eastern Africa, though often worn singly by men at home and by Maasai men in public.
A combination of inscription, overall design, and the ways in which a kanga may be worn make it a remarkable medium of communication. Kangas may be used to demonstrate a woman’s stance on global issues, her political allegiance and even her alignment with a collective vision for the future.
Kangas reflect changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. Kangas provide ways of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties. They move between the realms of the secular and the sacred, playing a central role in all the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in a woman’s life, yet also are used for the most mundane of functions.
The rectangular form of today’s kanga, with a continuous border, a central image or pattern, and an inscription in Kiswahili, has changed considerably from early prototypes. The first kangas were created in the late nineteenth century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenço, which the Portuguese had traded to eastern Africa for centuries. Soon hand-stamped versions on a single piece of cloth replaced the sewn lenço, and these in turn were superseded by factory-printed textiles, while all the time the form and patterning of kanga were evolving. The most successful designs and inscriptions are those which will appeal most to women, so manufacturers depend heavily on the advice of their female African customers. There was little doubt that the Obama kanga would be a best-seller.
This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 14 February 2013.