Traditional African Textiles Inspire Modern Art

Article excerpt

Two extraordinary parallel exhibits at the Grey Gallery at New York University and the Metropolitan Museum illuminate what many Africans themselves view as their supreme art: textile design. The Western world's on-again, off-again love affair with traditional African arts during the past century has been quicker to value African masks and sculpture than artful textiles, perhaps because textiles are associated with "mere" clothing. These exhibits build a case for the way the most refined and imaginative textiles Africans have worn for centuries create a sense for the wearer and onlookers of perceiving fine art in dancing motion.

Both exhibits also concentrate on how traditional West African textile designs have inspired modern African artists who use materials other than woven silk or cotton to create new art that references past weaving traditions while reflecting the present. This startling juxtaposition between the past and present in thinking about textile patterns is sweepingly showcased in the Grey Art Gallery's "The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles/Recent Art."

A hand-woven cotton wrapper from the Ewe people of Ghana is a sumptuous presentation of the polyrhythmic weaving style called "kente." If a textile could fancifully sing about itself, this cloth would sing: "I've got rhythm, who could ask for anything more?" "Kente for the Space Age" by Rikki Wemega-Kwawu creates a parallel field of color-clashing, asymmetrically skewed patterns - but does so using prepaid African phone cards linked by plastic twine. …