A Textile Diaspora

From Africa to the World: History told in Textiles

The essential stories of our species, the ones that tell truths both inspiring and terrifying, are the ones that force themselves to the surface: They will absolutely be told at some point, in some way. The African Diaspora, whose most brutal vehicle was the long ago enslavement of Africans and their transport to Europe and the Americas, is one of those stories.  Its echoes still sound in all of our lives, sometimes through the heritage of the countries we live in, and sometimes through the families we are born into.  Its effects, in turns amazing and painful, are still seen in textiles with links to Africa.
 
The front wall of Yves Appolinaire Kpede’s Abomey home and workshop sports a giant pair of scissors – which is only fitting for someone who specializes in the lively and sumptuous West African tradition of pictographic appliqué textiles – most famously expressed in Ghana’s asafo flags, but also pursued elsewhere in West Africa. Several pairs of scissors are busy at work inside, as Kpede and his atelier create familiar designs and gorgeous original work as well.  The familiar pieces, sold mostly to tourists, feature the pictograms of the kings of Danxomey and other motifs relating to the centuries-old court culture of pre-colonial-era Abomey.
 
The original pieces are Kpede’s inspired and thoughtful depictions of the Fon-Yoruba pantheon, and of symbols and patterns sought after by his mostly European collectors.  The Fon-Yoruba roots of his work relate rather directly to the traditional textiles (and other crafts) of Haiti, Cuba and Brazil where Voudou, Santeria, and Candomble’ spring from West African origins.
 
His sense of color and proportion, and his way of delivering a bit of fearsome mystery with each piece, speak of his talent. The images in handeyemagazine.com’s slideshow, all taken by Birgitta de Vos, are more effective at showing his talents than any words.
 
Kpede recently spent a great deal of time working on a project with distant cousin William Adjete Wilson. Wilson, part French and part Togolese, is a fine artist with decades of experience in Europe and the Americas. With Kpede’s atelier, Wilson created a series of eighteen pictographic textile pieces which tell, in terms both personal and historical, the story of the relationship between Africa and Europe – from first encounter in the 15th-cenury to the eras of slavery and colonialism, and finally to the ongoing question of how we are to proceed into the future in the face of the complexity we have created and continue to create as humans.
 
Wilson is uniquely invested in telling this story.  His family represents, of course, a blend of Europe and Africa – but that was not the full extent of the nuance in his family history. As a young adult coming to know his African relatives, he discovered that part of his family had achieved wealth and prominence in direct relation to their participation in the slave trade.  Another part were born into slavery in Brazil and moved back to Africa as free people.  Some he describes as active participants in the colonial-era bourgeoisie, with an emulation of European mores that was often rewarded with contempt, sometimes deadly, by Europeans themselves. Coming of age in the 1960s, with African liberation and Black Pride very much in the air, Wilson had to find ways to integrate conflicting ideas of power and subjugation, of abuser and victim, of visibility and invisibility. As an artist, he struggled to find ways of telling his story with his sharpest tool: his art.
 
The pictographs he designed, accompanied by a detailed and moving narrative, have been gathered into a book called L’Ocean Noir, The Black Ocean, O Oceano Negro published by Editions Gallimard (Paris, 2009).  This French-language book is a compelling teaching tool as well as an interesting and informative read. An English-language edition is planned for 2010.  A US tour is scheduled for L'Ocean Noir, The Black Ocean, O Oceano Negro  in 2010. Wilson is looking for additional museums interesting in hosting the work.
 
The legacy of the African Diaspora Wilson traces with his words and images extends to Haiti, Cuba and Brazil. Think of the Voudou flags of Haiti, the elaborate costumes of Brazilian Carneval. It also extends, of course, to United States in the form of quilts.
 
Scott Heffley, a conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Kansas City, has collected African-American quilts for over 20 years. In his book Bold Improvisation: Searching for African-American Quilts published by Kansas City Star Books (Kansas City, 2007), Heffley pairs images of African-American quilts with images of African textiles he sees as closely linked to the rhythms of color and pattern in his collection.  He is, of course, not the first person to participate in this discussion, which dates back to 1992 and Cuesta Benberry’s influential Kentucky exhibit, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts.   But Heffley’s book is a succinct and thought-provoking look at the palimpsest of visual culture the quilts of African-Americans can represent.
 
One quilt, in particular, by Mississippi quilter Sarah Mary Taylor, expresses the link between Africa and America clearly and poetically. Its name is Figures and Animals, and it telegraphs the pictographic language of Kpede and Wilson – across the distance of several generations of separation from Africa and African culture. It reminds us of the enduring visual heritage of Africa that is a major influence well beyond its original locus.
 
In Wilson’s remarks about his work, he cites a passage from William Faulkner that is entirely appropriate to this discussion:  The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”
 
For more information about William Adjete Wilson, or to purchase his book, visit www.williamwilson.fr.  To purchase Scott Heffley’s book Bold Improvisation: Searching for African-American Quilts, visit www.thekansascitystore.com. To communicate with Yves Appolinaire Kpede, email him at cacbivesapede@yahoo.fr

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