British Museum blog

Letting off steam: communicating through music, cloth and song in eastern Africa

Chris Spring, Curator, African collection, British Museum

When I began to prepare for the Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre, I realised at once that zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia (which were aimed at calming the restless spirits within those possessed and at which lyres of the type featured in the show would have been played), represent one among several different ways for women to communicate a range of ideas and concerns which cannot be spoken out loud in daily society. My fieldwork in eastern Africa over the past 15 years has taught me that kanga cloth and taarab music are two other means of communicating widely used by women in the region.

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Sudanese lyre. 19th century. H. 40.5 cm. British Museum Af1917,0411.1

Printed cotton manga, with inscription which reads 'You know nothing'. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘You know nothing’. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm. British Museum Af2002,09.4.

The very first kanga I acquired for the British Museum on Zanzibar back in 2002 (pictured above) was not printed in Africa at all but in India and it looked more like a Damien Hirst spot painting than anything else. On it was printed the Swahili slogan HUJUI KITU ‘YOU KNOW NOTHING’, and that marked the beginning of a steep learning curve for me. ‘Who would wear such a thing?’, I asked my Tanzanian friend George Ngungulu. ‘Oh, maybe an older woman as a way of putting down her younger rivals’ he replied, ‘“You young people think you know everything, but HUJUI KITU – you know nothing!!” In other words, it’s a way of letting off steam without having to open your mouth or indulge in anything physical’, he explained.

That kanga, together with many other textiles from eastern and southern Africa, is currently in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter as part of the Social Fabric: African Textiles exhibition which I originally curated at the British Museum and which is now one of its ‘Museum in Britain’ touring exhibitions.

The unspoken language of the kanga provides a way of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties which inevitably arise, very much in the way women benefit from zār ceremonies in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, though in zār women are permitted – even expected – to let off steam by behaving in outrageous ways which are definitely taboo in wider society. In common with zār, kangas regularly move between the realms of the secular and the sacred. They play a central role in all the major life-cycle ceremonies in a Swahili woman’s life, and yet may be used for the most mundane of functions. It is this ambivalence that makes kanga cloth almost emblematic of multi-faceted Swahili society.

While working in Tanzania and Kenya I also learned that there are interesting parallels between the development of kanga and of the style of musical performance known as taarab, which accompanies important occasions in coastal eastern Africa and on Zanzibar in particular – though the classical style of taarab originated in Egypt. I remember a wonderful performance by a taarab orchestra, fronted by a female singer, in a revered music club in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Listening to the singer, and watching women offering her money, I realised that there is a distinct similarity between the messages contained in kanga inscriptions and the sentiments expressed by the female taarab singers at the request of the women in the audience: both are vehicles which allow Swahili women to become involved in everyday personal or local disputes and rivalry by voicing opinions which cannot be overtly stated. So successful were both kanga and taarab in this role that legislation had to be brought in to regulate the vehemence with which they were being used in Tanzania!

Working with Emma Liwewa, vice-principal of the Bagamoyo College of Arts on the Tanzanian mainland, I learned how kangas are also worn in different styles to suit particular occasions or moods. One style known as ushungi is used when walking along the beach with one kanga wrapped tightly around the head; at home this headdress is removed and is draped loosely around the shoulders. When going to the market the style is known as kilemba, a name which derives from the turbans traditionally worn by Arab men, and refers to the way in which women wear the first kanga wound around their heads. You can see a video of the film I shot in the African galleries at the British Museum.

HAMWISHI KUNIZULIA HICHO NI CHENU KILEMA – ‘Your problem is that you can’t stop backbiting’, says the inscription on another wedding kanga. With a traditional design in black, red and white, the kanga would have been worn by the bride and all her friends and relations, and would be aimed at anyone who might be angry or jealous of the marriage. The inscription on another kanga from Tanzania (pictured below) reads MWEMBE TAYARI – ‘the mangos are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself!

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads 'the mangos are ready'. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Printed cotton kanga, with inscription which reads ‘the mangos are ready’. Tanzania, 2003. 106 x 166 cm. British Museum Af2003,21.4.

Preparing to travel up country from the main bus station in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania and indeed in eastern Africa, I noticed on the backs of buses and daladalas (minibuses) an interesting male response to the female-orientated battleground of kanga. The rear panels of the vehicles, particularly long-distance buses, were decorated with a variety of colourful images, while the bumpers carried inscriptions such as UKIWAONA KAMA WATU: ‘they look like reasonable people but they’re not’, NI HAYO TU: ‘that’s all we have’, or TUTABANANA HAPA HAPA: ‘we’re staying put’ – all three referring, according to my friend George back in 2003, to the government’s attempts to evict groups of migrant workers. These panels and their inscriptions are not only visually similar to the designs of kanga cloth, but they also fulfil one of the primary functions of kanga, of taarab music and of zār ceremonies in delivering messages and allowing behaviour which might otherwise be hard to articulate or perform.

As always, Africa provides food for thought on the way we go about things in the West.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3, at the British Museum from 18 June until 16 August 2015.

Chris Spring’s book African Textiles Today is available from the British Museum shop online.

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A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, , , , , , , , , ,

London, a world city in 20 objects: Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kangaChristopher 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.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

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.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga is on display in the exhibition Social fabric: African textiles today until 21 April 2013.

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Filed under: Collection, London: a world city in 20 objects, , , , ,

My artistic practice


Nicola Jarvis, artist and hand embroiderer,
Royal School of Needlework

Nicola Jarvis was one of the ‘unknown’ embroiderers who worked together to construct the lace for Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. In this guest blog post, she explores how anonymous craftspeoples’ identities can create a sense of mystery and magic.

My artistic practice is a work in progress that has been evolving ever since I could hold a pencil. During this journey, I trained as a hand embroiderer at the Royal School of Needlework in the early 1990s. Over the last two decades I have worked on numerous commissions for the Royal School and contracts for a multitude of companies and private individuals. Most of these jobs have involved making stitched items or artworks for which, after payment, I received no further acknowledgement for my craftsmanship. This has become the norm for me, and my colleagues working in the same industry.

To create a well-crafted object through an intimate relationship with the materials and process of making constitutes much of the job satisfaction.

The history of material culture is made up of hundreds of thousands of anonymous craftspeople that have made objects as a livelihood, to enable their survival and that of their families, with no thought of recognition for what they do.

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

I am currently in Delaware, USA, at the Winterthur Museum attending an international needlework conference where 230 delegates are examining and discussing the work of English and American embroiderers over the past 400 years. Some of the makers’ identities are known revealing fascinating stories of where, why and how their needlework was made. Others remain hidden and it is only through detailed study of their craftsmanship that we may construct our own narratives. I think this mystery creates much of the ‘magic’ that surrounds an object with a potent mix of unanswered questions and possibilities.

When I began my training at the Royal School of Needlework, it was the mastery of skills and process of making embroidery that was of utmost importance to me. When working the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, 20 years on, this was still the case.

I played a small part in a process that involved a large team of highly skilled needlewomen realising a very beautiful textile in the history of object making. Our stories and relationships are bound up in that dress, made with a commitment to, and a passion for, our craft. The individual and/or joint identities are not imperative, rather the collective energy and mastery of the materials and techniques is what will always be valued and celebrated.

Nicola’s embroidery short course at the Museum starting on Sunday 6 November is now fully booked, but take a look at other events in the Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman programme.

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Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, , , , , ,

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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