African Designs Highlight Special Art Gallery at Bellefonte Art Museum

The Bellefonte Art Museum for Center County (BAM) exhibits “African Designs: Creating Wearable Art” in the Special Arts Gallery in January and February.

Artisans in many African countries create fabrics and wearable art from a variety of materials. Some fabric designs feature abstract and geometric patterns produced by weaving, printing and even mud staining methods. Additionally, other embellishments are added, such as beading, fringe, or embroidery, to make the fabrics unique to the group or culture they represent.

African women and men have perfected their styles from historical designs and made their wearables coincide with their modern lives. As a result, their works have influenced Western fashion and appear on items ranging from handbags to formal wear. However, many fashion designers fail to realize that the patterns represent a rich history of the African people.

In a press release, Patricia House, executive director of BAM, described six sections of the exhibit. The divisions are:

Nigeria, West Africa – Aso-oke and Adire design;

Democratic Republic of Congo, West Africa — Kuba Cloth;

South Africa—Ndebele and Xhosa. Some added fabrics are popular in East, West and Southern Africa. These are Ankara and Shweshwe fabrics. However, these fabrics are not indigenous to the continent;

Mali and Timbuktu — the Mud Sheet;

Ghana, West Africa – Kente Cloth; and

Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, East Africa – Kanga and bark cloth.

Yoruba is a major ethnic group in Nigeria, a large, densely populated country in Africa. The Yoruba people weave the Aso-oke cloth in cotton or silk. Ask-oke means “superior stuff”, that is, high-ranking stuff. Men and women weave the fabric to make dresses and hats for men, capes and ties for women. Hand embroidery decorates only men’s clothing.

Adire is an indigo-dyed cloth also made by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. Asi means tie, and RE means dye, so the process is similar to our tie-dye.

Ankara fabric was originally known as Dutch Wax Print, brought to Africa by Europeans in the early 19th century. It’s a batik process, and Ankara is known for its colorful prints that reflect African culture. Shweshwe is similar to Ankara and is more commonly found in South Africa.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, is the largest country in Central Africa. The Kuba kingdom flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries. Kuba cloth has been made there since the 17th century.

The raffia palm, which grows in Central Africa and Madagascar, has leaves that can spread up to 60 feet in length. The weavers cut the veins by hand, which then become the fiber. The Kuba people first used the product to adorn royalty. Today, men and women make Kuba cloth by weaving geometric patterns. Finally, the surface cuts give the velvet a velvety appearance.

South Africa — The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent. Venda, Sotho, Tsonga, Nguni are a few ethnic groups that make up those of Black African descent or about 80% of the country. Xhosa and Ndebele are subgroups of the Ngunis

The Xhosa have been decorating clothing with beads, shells and buttons for over 200 years. Their inhabitants generally dress in white loincloths dyed with ocher which turns reddish brown.

Although the Ndebele culture has existed for centuries, its origin is unclear. At the end of the 19th century, he suffered severe punishments and losses from the Boers. Some historians believe that bad times spawned the colorful art forms attributed to the Ndebele. The Ndebele are known for their bright and colorful geometric art designs which they paint on homes and entire villages. The herringbone stitch is a remarkable stitch among the Ndebele.

The region of Mali and Timbuktu has a 14th century history and numerous trade routes. Additionally, Mali mined gold, which contributed to Timbuktu’s importance. The Republic of Mali is a landlocked country in the North West region of Africa.

The many ethnic groups in this region make ‘mud cloths’, which are popular and used by many cultures beyond Africa.

For example, the Bambara make the best-known mud cloth, “Bogolanfini”, a combination of words meaning mud, earth and cloth. The mud cloth has historical significance and was considered protection in battles, including conflicts with French troops during colonial occupation.

Men do most of the cotton weaving in narrow looms to make a plain fabric. The strips are sewn together to create a fabric approximately one meter wide and 1 ½ meters long. The women begin the patterns and decorations by applying a slip of clay (a liquefied solution with a high iron content). This application produces a black pigment after the fabric has been soaked in the solution, dried, and then subjected to another type of fermented mud in a clay pot for a year.

Finally, mud paint is applied to draw geometric patterns. The women rinse off the mud and the brown color remains.

Tuareg Blue Cloth – The Tuareg live in the northern part of Mali near the region of Timbuktu in the Sahara Desert. They are distinguished by their clothing of different shades of deep blue.

The “blue people”, as they are called, wear deep blue to protect themselves from the effects of the desert sun.

Ghana in West Africa is home to many cultural groups including the Akan people. The country is vast and has a varied ecology and coastline. The Akan people make the fabric called kente cloth. The Akan begin their materials with strips of brightly colored fabric made of woven silk or cotton to create basket-like designs. In kente fabric, colors denote passion, status, renewal, harmony, etc.

Everyone in Ghana now wears kente, especially for special occasions. Kente is so popular that it is now mass produced in West Africa and other countries.

On the east coast of Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda gained independence from the British in the mid-20th century. Kangas are made from printed fabrics originally imported from Portugal in the mid-19th century. Tanzanians and Kenyans wear the cloth in pairs. One Kenga is for a skirt or a wrap and the other for a blouse. The women of Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, in the mid-20th century requested printed fabrics that used their designs. They chose the designs to reflect the essential things in their life. The early designs looked a lot like the feathers of a Kanga chicken, with white dots on black. These women were therefore the first to use wearable art to spread messages.

Leather has been used for clothing in Africa for centuries. The Masai and Iragw tribes made some of the most compelling examples, with beads and fringe.

The Buganda tribe makes the oldest textile in human history. Barkcloth clothed the monarchs of Buganda, a kingdom hundreds of years old. To make barkcloth, workers remove the bark from the Mutuba fig tree. The tree is wrapped to protect it. The bark is rolled up and beaten to soften it. Then the people working with the bark boil it to soften it further. Stretching the bark and drying it for several days before cooking it completes the process. Now the bark is ready to be decorated with dyes or stamped designs.

The Bellefonte Art Museum of Central PA is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m., or by appointment.


In the Sieg Gallery – “Natural Trails”, watercolors and oil paintings by Brienne M. Brown depict natural trails that surround us;

The R. Thomas Berner Photography Gallery — “A Glimpse of the Night Sky” by Heather Scully;

Paulette Lorraine Berner Community Gallery — “Vivid Order” by Erin Bolger Welsh;

New Makery at the Museum — Make your own paper-based Kente fabric in the new Makery space. There, kids and families can do self-directed art projects every weekend; and

24/7 Showcase — “Age of Aquarium” by Steve Getz and Carol Ann Simon Cillo.

This story appears in the January 20-26 edition of the Center County Gazette

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