Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery and Diplomacy in Madagascar

By Walsh, Andrew | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery and Diplomacy in Madagascar


Walsh, Andrew, African Studies Review


Christine Mullen Kreamer and Sarah Fee, eds. Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery and Diplomacy in Madagascar. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 2002. 205 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $35.00. Paper.

Leafing through Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery, and Diplomacy in Madagascar, one might mistakenly assume that this beautifully illustrated book is nothing more than a museum exhibition catalog. Published in conjunction with a 2002 exhibit on Malagasy textile arts at the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution), it contains no fewer than 112 illustrations, many of them full-page, and 68 in color. A careful reading of the book's essays, however, indicates that there is much more to this book than its visual appeal. Objects as Envoys is, in fact, a collection of papers on various examples of material culture (predominantly Malagasy, but American and French as well) and the practices, relationships, and exchanges associated with them. In diverse essays ranging from an overview of different traditions of Malagasy textile production and use, to a discussion of the origins and development of foreign portrayals of Malagasy life and culture through various media, the focus of the collection is (for the most part) "the role of material culture in Madagascar's internal and external relations and in representations of Malagasy identity" (18), in the late nineteenth century in particular. The goal, as Kreamer promises in her concise introduction, is to "trace the movement and circulation of textiles and images [within and outside of Madagascar] as potent markers of social relationships, as powerful symbols of political power and global diplomacy, and as significant objects imbued with history and interpretation in museum collections" (22).

Following Kreamer's introduction and a brief and informative overview of Malagasy geography, history, and culture by Rakotoarisoa, the collection begins in earnest with Fee's comprehensive account of textile production and use through Malagasy history and in various Malagasy settings. …

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