Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa

Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa

Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa

Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa


Drawing examples from a wide range of African cultures, this ground-breaking book expands the continuing discourse on the aesthetic and cultural significance of cloth, body and dress in Africa and moves beyond contextual analysis to consider the broader application of cloth and dress to art forms in other media. In blending the concerns of Art History and Anthropology, the authors focus on the art patronage systems that stimulate production, consumption, commodification and cultural meaning, and emphasize the overriding importance of cloth to aesthetic and cultural expression in African societies. Through this approach they reveal complex processes that involve a series of actors, including textile artists, commissioning-patrons and consumer-patrons, all of whom shape cloth and dress traditions. These individuals not only influence production, but are a key to understanding the cultural meaning of cloth and dress and, by extension, the body in Africa.


Cloth, as a valued cultural artifact, is involved in every aspect of African life, playing an essential role in marriage, political and ritual exchanges, (see Chapter 2) As dress, cloth reaches its most culturally meaningful form. A clothed body is essential to ccmplete human identity, setting apart the cultural self from the unclothed ‘natural’ body. Depending upon cultural precepts, minimal dress in some societies may make the body very visible, while in others the body is fully concealed and physically enlarged by accumulative dress. In all cases, as a kind of cultural or social skin, cloth layers the body with meaning (Turner 1980). Culturally significant body postures and gestures are emphasized by dress ensembles tied to a society's important political, social and religious institutions, when the body of a political leader is covered with layers of draped cloth or opulent tailored garments, dress expands and enlarges the body, projecting high social status and political power. Cn the other hand, when a member of a religious association dons a mask and costume, dress conceals and denies the wearer's human body. Thus:

the surface of the body, as the comrn frontier of society, the social self, and the psycho-biological individual, beccmes the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialisation is enacted, and bodily acbmrEnt … beccrtES the language through which it is expressed. (Turner 1980: 112)

While focused on hats and hairstyles, the following insights apply to larger dress ensembles:

People use hats and hair styles to express and explore shared and deeply held cultural beliefs and values tcwards ethnicity, gsndsr, life stages, status and authority, occupation, and social ctecorun. As a material language’ hats and hair styles can . . .

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