Adornment, Dress, and African Arts of the Body
- LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2022
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0121
- LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2022
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0121
African clothing and body adornment is a complex subject that incorporates countless media and technologies, are of which are in a constant state of transformation. The arts of the body are exceptionally adaptable, inherently portable, and simultaneously personal and public. Because they are mobile, moving as commodities and gifts, and worn on the bodies of travelers, these forms readily pass between cultures and communities. Only when removed from their intended contexts for collection or display in museums, or frozen in the form of a photograph, do these forms cease to reflect constant movement and change. While these are characteristics of dress practices everywhere, scholarship focused on Africa is further complicated by the history of Western misrepresentations of African people and cultures, in which dress served as an emblem of the “primitive.” In Western popular culture representations of Africa, undressed or underdressed bodies signified the distant “other.” Scholarship on dress and body adornment in Africa, therefore, has special significance. Research on African arts of the body has addressed genres of dress and adornment as elements of ensembles or as singular objects; it has explored the series of technologies and actors involved in the production of body adornment, the last of whom is always the wearer who brings the parts together to reflect personal identity at a single moment. Dress elements are intended for and completed by the people who wear them; indeed, body adornment is often inseparable from the body, such as hair styles, and skin ornamentation such as painting, scarification, and tattooing. Scholarship on these art forms has taken diverse approaches to this connection to the body as intended support. Some research has addressed objects of adornment entirely as aesthetic objects, separated from their use contexts to address production techniques, the symbolism of patterns and colors, and the like. Other scholars have focused chiefly on context, addressing the symbolic roles of body adornment in political and religious contexts, the significance of dress in the expression of specific social identities—age, gender, familial and other affiliations. And finally, numerous publications have combined these approaches, as reflected in their illustrations: large, color images feature the objects of adornment themselves, while contextual photographs that show the objects in use are smaller, playing supporting roles. African dress studies have more often focused on the social structures these forms reflect than on individual innovators; only in recent years have scholars turned attention to fashion design, dress innovations that foreground dress creativity as a marketable artistic expression.
Historiography: Foundational Works
Early African art history focused exclusively on sculptural forms, most notably figurative sculpture and masks. Textiles and body adornment, when collected for museum collections, were treated as artifacts rather than works of art. Roy Sieber, who earned the first American doctoral degree in African art history in 1957 (the title of his dissertation, African Tribal Sculpture, indicates the nascent state of the field at the time), was not the first art historian to turn attention to African textiles and body arts, but his influence has been great. His 1980 publication and exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, African Textiles and Decorative Arts, marked the début of what has since become a sub-field of the study of African art history. Scholarship on this important African artistic expression has flourished in the decades that followed, based on both extended research in Africa and on close analysis of textiles themselves and archival images and records. This research, like much African art historical work, bridges anthropology and art history. Joanne B. Eicher, like Sieber a foundational scholar, was trained as an anthropologist and taught in an Apparel Studies program rather than in Art History. Beginning in the mid-1970s, she published books and articles on Nigerian textiles, as well as a series of edited volumes on a wide array of body- and dress-related themes. Other seminal scholarship of the 1970s and 80s, exemplified by Lamb and Schaedler, employed archival materials to describe and classify African cloth. Beginning in the 1970s, European and American academics, curators, and passionate amateurs published books, most richly illustrated, that examine the artistry of African textiles and dress. These publications range from continent-wide surveys (R. Gardi 1969, Picton 1995, Trowell 1970) to region- or country-specific studies (Boser-Sarivaxévanis 1975, Eicher 1976, Menzel 1972). These publications combine attention to the aesthetics of dress and textiles, the technology by which they are produced, and the cultural significance of these art forms. Boser-Sarivaxévanis 1975, Eicher 1976, Gardi 1969, and Menzel 1972 base their analysis on their own research in African communities. Picton and Mack 1979, who have conducted research on textiles in several African cultures, synthesize their own work with other published scholarship to complement the authors’ own research, often in combination with travelers’ narratives and other sources of information. For readers seeking a broad yet scholarly overview of African body arts, Picton and Mack 1979 is an excellent resource, though it does not address non-textile forms. Sieber 1972’s publication encompasses a vast array of body adornments, but its structure—essentially an extended essay—makes it less useful to readers seeking information on specific topics.
Boser-Sarivaxévanis, Renée. Recherche sur l’histoire des textiles traditionnels tissés et teints de l’Afrique occidentale. Basel, Switzerland: Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, 1975.
Based on extensive fieldwork in West Africa, this work uses comparisons of linguist terms for textile-related objects and concepts and the technologies of weaving to propose a theory of origins and diffusion of textile practices. Boser-Sarivaxévanis focuses on the nomadic Fulani cultures as key to this history.
Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. Nigerian Handcrafted Textiles. Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1976.
A slim book that introduces several genres of Nigerian textiles, illustrated with photographs of objects and manufacturing processes. Preparation of fibers, weaving and dyeing techniques, and specific textile genres such as akwete and adire are addressed. The book is noteworthy for its publication by an African press, which likely made it accessible to Nigerian and regional audiences.
Gardi, René. African Crafts and Craftsmen. Translated by Sigrid McCrae. New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold, 1969.
An exploration of numerous media and techniques in diverse African cultures, many of which are employed in the production of body adornments. These include brass- and gold-casting, bead making, weaving, and dyeing. The book is well illustrated with black and white photographs of artists at work.
Lamb, Venice. West African Weaving. London: Duckworth, 1975.
This is the first of several tomes on weaving technologies in West Africa by British textile scholar Venice Lamb, both as sole author and as a co-author, including books on Cameroonian, Nigerian, and Sierra Leonean weaving. The book, like the others, is organized according to ethnic group and region. The Lamb textile collection is now held jointly by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of Natural History.
Menzel, Brigitte. Textilien aus Westafrika. Berlin: Museum für Volkerkunde Berlin, 1972.
This three volume work proves a highly technical analysis of the structure of looms and the production of textiles in West Africa. Menzel addresses the making of cloth, from cotton field to loom (volume 1), the transformations of woven cloth through various dyeing, embroidery, and other embellishment techniques (volume two), and volume three catalogues West African textiles that were held by the Museum für Volkerkunde before World War II and are now lost.
Picton, John. The Art of African Textiles: Technology, Tradition, and Lurex. London: Lund Humphries, 1995.
Published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Barbican Gallery in London, this very substantive book contains a lengthy essay by John Picton, addressing the constant stylistic and technological change that has long characterized African textiles and clothing. Short essays by contributors address specific topics, including East African kanga and the textile market in southern Nigeria.
Picton, John, and John Mack. African Textiles: Looms, Weaving, and Design. London: British Museum, 1979.
The co-authors, both British art historians, provide a highly readable overview of major African textile technologies. Chapters and sections address weaving on single and multiple heddle looms, preparation of fibers (cotton, wool, raffia, as well as more unusual materials), and methods of decorating cloth, including dyeing, embroidery, and appliqué.
Schaedler, Karl-Ferdinand. Weaving in Africa South of the Sahara. Munich: Panterra, 1987.
A prodigious compilation of data, based primarily on historical documentation such as late nineteenth-early twentieth century photographs and observations by Europeans from missionaries to ethnographers. The focus is primarily West Africa, and the value of this work is primarily in its documentation rather than its analysis. Also published in French and in German editions.
Sieber, Roy. African Textiles and Decorative Arts. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1972.
Accompanying a 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (NY), this catalogue was groundbreaking at the time, as the first academic exploration of this realm of African art. A wide array of objects, drawn from public and private collections, are supplemented by contextual photographs and an extended essay that addresses each medium or object type. The bibliography, compiled by Rosalyn Walker, represents the state of the field at the time of publication.
Trowell, Margaret. African Design. 3d ed. New York: Praeger, 1970.
Trowell, a longtime professor of art at Makerere University in Uganda, surveys African surface decoration across many media. Chapters on textiles and body art place patterns and motifs in the context of other forms, including wall ornamentation, leatherwork, and pottery. (originally published London: Faber and Faber, 1960)
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