Academic journal article African Studies Review

Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar

Article excerpt

Chapurukha M. Kusimba, J. Claire Odland, and Bennet Bronson, eds. Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. 196 pp. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $40.00. Paper.

Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar is the second beautifully illustrated, large-format edited collection concerning Malagasy textiles to come out in the past few years. Where the previously published Objects as Envoys (Kreamer & Fee 2002) focused largely on textiles used in exchanges with foreign powers in the nineteenth century, this volume attempts a more ambitious overview of Madagascar's many and varied textile traditions, past and present. At the center of the book, and featured frequently in its many illustrations, is the Field Museum's collection of Malagasy art, artifacts, and, especially, textiles, a collection amassed by the renowned curator and ethnologist Ralph Linton during a stay in Madagascar in 1926-27.

The book's opening three chapters include a brief introduction by Kusimba, an overview of Linton's two years and five expeditions in Madagascar by Mosca, and a fascinating description by Linton himself entitled "Market Day in Madagascar." Readers more familiar with Linton's reputation than with his work will likely find the last of these a real pleasure. As he leads us through Fianarantsoa's weekly marketplace one morning in 1927, passing from salt vendors to fruit and vegetable sellers to iron mongers to tinkers, Linton's evocative description of the scene reveals the curiosity and keen eye for detail that made him such an accomplished researcher, collector, and curator.

Following Radimilahy's brief overview of a collection of Malagasy portraits painted at around the time of Linton's expeditions, the collection jumps to its three most intriguing (from an anthropologist's perspective) and comprehensive chapters, each of them combining attention to history, material culture, and social context in ways that nicely illustrate the complexity of particular textile traditions in practice. Green, for example, documents not only the social and technical aspects of weaving among the Betsileo people of Madagascar's central highlands, but also the centrality of shrouds, whether handwoven or not, to the transformation of Betsileo dead into ancestors to and for whom the living consider themselves responsible. …

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