Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Exhibiting A Pattern of Pride

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Exhibiting A Pattern of Pride

Article excerpt

University's exhibit on kente involves local students and helps museums fulfill their responsibilities to minority communities

Ann Spencer spent nearly 13 years traveling the same route from her home in Plainfield, N.J., to her job at the Newark Museum. But in the summer of 1994, her commute became the starting point for an unusual bi-coastal collaborative exhibit that paired two prestigious museums with a small group of teenagers.

"I was walking from the train station to work and I remember I noticed this woman walking in front of me who was wearing a kente print blouse," says Spencer, a curator of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific.

Over the next few months she noticed more and more residents wearing kente, and storefronts selling print tote bags, umbrellas, and even backpacks made from the cloth.

"At first I made a mental note of what I saw and even asked a few people about it. But then I thought to myself, `What stories these people must have to tell.' I suppose I could have done it, but it seemed to me that it would be interesting to have students do the interviews and learn about it."

That next year Spencer picked up the telephone and called Doran H. Ross, an authority on kente cloth and director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

"I had no idea Doran was thinking of doing a kente exhibit. I was just looking for people with expertise and so I told him my idea," she says.

Nearly four years later, that conversation produced "Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity." The exhibit, unique for many reasons, is a comprehensive retrospective of kente cloth's history, cultural significance, and meaning -- both in Ghana and in the United States.

Icon Status

Originally worn by Asante and Ewe royalty in Ghana, kente cloth is known for its remarkable color and weave. It is synonymous with ceremony and power in Ghana, where it remains a symbol of distinction and tradition as both garments and ceremonial cloth.

Kente's history is as rich as its weave. Created by the Asante tribe in the late 17th century, its roots date back thousands of years when weavers are said to have tried to copy a spider's web. These days, the cloth is woven in narrow strips and then sewn together. The patterns are varied and each carries its own meaning. In the United States, it has become one of the most popular symbols of Black identity.

"In contemporary America, kente cloth represents African Americans," says James Burks, director of the William Grant Stills Art Center in Los Angeles and director of the African Market Place, an annual festival celebrating Black culture in Los Angeles. "I believe people wear it because they like it and they may feel it puts them closer to their `African-ness.'"

Today, kente print is not only commonplace among African Americans. Latino students also have been known to wear kente stoles at graduation ceremonies.

And it's that icon status that Ross and Spencer hoped to present in the exhibit using the work of Newark and Los Angeles teenagers.

"I think this is a good model for people and other institutions to live up to," says Dr. Lisa Aronson, a professor of art history at Skidmore College in New York. "There is this perceived arrogance of curators that they do this stuffy work, but this project cuts through that and reaches out to people. And anytime you can make an exhibit [as] accessible as they've done in this case, I think you've done your job."

Young Recruits

Aronson's praise reflects Spencer's and Ross' decision to invest a year working at three area schools to ensure the project wasn't simply a gesture of inclusion.

"I guess it was a leap of faith since I had never taught in the public schools. But it seemed to me this project was something the kids could do," says Ross, sitting in his first floor office that is filled with more than 25 years of research on African textiles -- including books, masks, and other African art. …

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