By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted Oct. 9, 2017)
Visiting the ‘Vanishing Textiles of Africa’ exhibition at Alliance Francaise is like taking a crash course in one of the continent’s most precious and priceless art forms.
The hand-woven textiles and tapestries on display are only a fraction of those that were collected over more than 40 years by the Murumbi Trust CEO and Nairobi Gallery curator Alan Donovan. Yet they still tell an amazing story of this exquisite art form which has largely been lost since ‘the winds of change’ came blowing through the region.
The combination of modernity and Mitumba (second-hand clothes) are factors that have contributed to the rapid demise of many of the fabrics that Mr Donovan personally collected starting in the early 1970s.
The textiles and tapestries that fill two floors of Alliance Francaise come from seven African countries, including Cameroon, Congo (DRC formerly Zaire), Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
Rarely have we seen the walls of Alliance so colorfully covered, decked out with Adinkira and Kente cloth from Ghana, Lamba Mena (raw silk blended with raffia grass, cotton and pineapple fibre) from Madagascar and amazing ‘mud cloth’, also known as Bokolonfini by the Bambara people of Mali.
Then from Nigeria there’s the Adire and Okeno, both of which are being revived by the brilliant batik artist (who’s soon arriving in Nairobi), Nike Seven Seven Okundaye.
But perhaps the most prized textiles that Mr Donovan collected is the exquisite Bakuba cloth from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bakuba cloth is still being produced, but it’s definitely an endangered art form, which is why the Crown Prince Kwete Kwete of the Kuba Kingdom has been working with Mr Donovan to obtain protected heritage status from UNESCO.
Bakuba cloth with its distinctive geometric designs inspired a number of renowned modern artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Georges Braque. Matisse valued the textile so highly that he mounted an exhibition of Bakuba cloth at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City in 1938.
In order to see these African textiles in their full splendor, one will need to attend the African Heritage Night on 18th October when they’ll be transformed into exquisite fashion. The fashion show will especially feature the amazing indigo blue batiks of Nike as well as the launch of Kenyan musician Papillon’s first album ‘Heart of Africa’ with the young artiste’s inspiration, Ayub Ogada.