To the villagers in Androy, Madagascar, it was clear that Sarah Fee's mother had done a bad job raising her. She couldn't carry water on her head, spin cotton, or chop firewood without endangering her toes. Many of them had no conception that Madagascar was an island, and a white, single woman's appearance among them "was like someone dropping in from Mars," says Fee. But they welcomed her into their world. Fee spent three years there in the 1990s learning about the importance of the cloth village women weave for funerals.
Hired in April as associate curator of eastern hemisphere textiles and costume at the ROM, Fee's aim is to document textile traditions that persisted for centuries but are now dying out on this island nation the size of Texas, and she has since returned many times. She discovered that cloth is much less studied than other funerary rituals although it plays a critical role: given as a form of blessing, it symbolizes the cutting of ties with the living and ensures that the deceased will be well dressed in the next life.
The custom is similar to some of ancient Egypt's afterlife rites, but unlike Egypt's, Madagascar's traditions are largely unknown. When we think of Madagascar, most of us think lemurs. It's an association that drives Fee crazy: "There are people, too!" In fact, 14 million from 18 different cultural groups.
The South Dakota native became interested in funerary arts by chance: her first fieldwork was at a medieval cemetery. "That got me reading about what an important, expressive part of culture death can be and how everyone treats it so differently," she says. But Eastern cultures have always been in this Paris-educated scholar's blood. Her grandfather, a missionary in Sudan, brought back a prayer rug and rhino-skin shield that fascinated Fee as a child. "I definitely was attracted by other lands. …