Traditional African aesthetics meet modernist architecture in the latest exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum: a selection of textiles from West and Central Africa that have inspired the work of Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.
“I have always been interested in the abstraction and range of techniques associated with African textiles,” said Adjaye, who has designed 50 architecture projects around the world, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open next year in Washington, D.C.
Adjaye sees the fabrics as “collective form — a structure,” and the show examines the intersection of traditional craft and structure. The textiles are hung from a frame designed by Adjaye for this show; they form four loosely constructed walls suggestive of an architectural structure.
The exhibit, which remains on view through next February, is part of the museum’s “Selects” series, in which prominent designers, artists and architects are invited to mine and interpret the museum’s extensive permanent collection.
“Textiles, which are a vital element of the visual language of West Africa, embody this interplay between geography and culture, and are rich sources of inspiration for my design work,” Adjaye said in an interview.
Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and raised in Britain, Adjaye “grew up with African textiles around me. I grew up understanding certain ceremonial cloths, and it became very clear, particularly when I started creating public work, that I had a lot of inspiration from textiles and their ability to communicate.”
“I really see my work as weaving, not literally, but figuratively. Weaving is bringing people together. I am weaving the facades and the structures. Walls and windows alone can only go so far, but textiles can teach you how to negotiate complicated agendas in architecture,” he explained.
In textiles, as in architecture, “the nature of the available local materials, such as plant fibers and dyes, defines the textiles’ construction.” The show, which is housed in a single room and may seem small at first glance, consists of 14 diverse textiles hung on an enormous frame, designed by Adjaye to echo the room’s ornate 19th century architecture.
The works, all traditionally used as clothing, can be viewed up close, without glass as a barrier, with both sides of the fabric visible. They are also meant to play off one another, giving a sense of the varied cultural geography of Africa. As a whole, the show is a sort of mosaic of the best African textile techniques and aesthetics.
From the Bamana peoples of Mali, there’s a bold, black-and-white mud cloth created from the painstaking process of strip-weaving locally grown, hand-spun cotton, sewing the strips together to form a large rectangle, and then dyeing and re-dyeing the fabric, using iron-rich mud fermented for a year, until it takes on a deep, warm shade of black. The design is created by leaving some parts of the fabric white, while the artists paint on the fermented mud everywhere else on the fabric.
“It’s woven in eight narrow strips and dyed by a group of people, often a family,” explained Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at the museum. Beside it hangs a large Adinkra wrap traditionally worn for funerals. A potent symbol of graphics as communication, it is made from factory-woven cotton, which has been hand-dyed black. In squares painted onto it with a glossier shade of black are patterns stamped with carved gourds. Each pattern holds a message, understood as communication between the living and their ancestors.
On the other side of Adjaye’s big frame hang two different styles of Kente prestige cloths from Ghana, one from the Ewe people and another from the Asante. Worn at religious festivals and important life events, the cloths’ voluminous size and radiant colors give a majestic appearance.
“These became a pan-African symbol, representing black pride and also the civil rights movement,” said Brown. And in a different aesthetic, using different techniques, is an Adire wrap from Gambia, with resist-dyed indigo on damask, its pattern barely visible beneath the rich blue dye. The fabric is pleated by hand, with rows of stitching near the folds creating straight or curving lines or dashes, which later stand out in white against the natural indigo dye once the stitching has been removed.
Elsewhere, from the Kalabari people of Nigeria, is a delicate, almost lacy wrap from the 1930s. Here, the art is in subtracting, not adding and adorning. Made from a simple, checked Indian madras fabric, threads have been selectively removed, one by one, to create a new pattern, in this case bold diamond shapes.
Besides the hanging textiles, each corner of the gallery houses a small, traditional African hat. One features brightly colored spikes, and another has sausage-like “horns.” “I love the hats,” Adjaye said. “They use local matter, like dead vegetable matter, and transform them into geometry and form,”
The new Smithsonian museum, which will be Adjaye’s largest project so far, has a facade that resembles pleats, perforated to create an almost rhythmic, geometric pattern. “The textiles are part of an architectural continuum,” he said.