Social Fabric explores how the printed and factory-woven textiles of eastern and southern Africa mirror the changing times, fashions and tastes of the region. Bringing together kanga from Kenya and Tanzania, and shweshwe from southern Africa the exhibition reveals how these fabrics express the social, political, religious, emotional and even sexual concerns of the people who wear them.
The varied patterns and inscriptions are thought provoking and sometimes humorous. They convey an unspoken language, expressing thoughts and feelings which cannot always be spoken out loud. Worn in both secular and sacred contexts, the fabric plays a central role in all major rite-of-passage ceremonies in women’s, and in some cases, men’s lives.
The exhibition will reveal how these types of wearable cloth mirror the convergence of African tastes and patronage with strong historical and contemporary trading ties from across the globe. It will also explore how the cloth is used to celebrate influential people and great occasions, such as Josina Machel (above), Nelson Mandela or the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
The exhibition also features contemporary art and fashion inspired by the textiles in the show. South African artist Lawrence Lemaoana uses kanga to explore the notion of power in post-Apartheid South Africa. Kapwani Kiwanga's sculptural work draws our attention to how African fabric is not only a decorative object but also a medium for expressing the main concerns of society. The bold graphic print on the designs of London based fashion label CHiCHia was inspired by chief designer Christine Mhando's favourite proverbs and sayings sourced from Tanzanian kanga.
A British Museum touring exhibition
The British Museum
The Dorset Foundation