Global Patterns

Dress and textiles in Africa

For a stunning visual history lesson of African artistic expression using textiles, beads, dyes, and other techniques, stop by at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which is showcasing over eighty works from the museum’s own collection and from private holdings in its current exhibit Global Patterns: Dress and Textiles in Africa.  The show runs until January 8, 2012.

Global Patterns highlights the aesthetic and technical accomplishments of African weavers, dyers, bead workers, tailors, and hat makers during the twentieth century.  The exhibit includes an introductory section, “Body Beautiful” that presents two wooden female figures—from the Mendes tribe in Sierra Leone and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Tabwa tribe.  Both groups show via tattooing, scarification, painting, and attire that appearance is both a form of identity and individual presentation, and self-expression.

Viewers with a keen interest in natural dyes will relish the exhibit’s section that focuses on Adire, the renowned indigo-dyed fabrics of the Yoruba in southwest Africa.  Fabrics on display show the lively patterns created by women artisans Techniques used to create the various designs include twisting, tying, and blocking. Images include classical geometric patterns, but also animals, architecture, religious motifs, as well as imagery of European imports like eating utensils and other items, which melded traditional African designs with more contemporary ones.

From Ghana, fabric enthusiasts will have the opportunity to view “Iconic Cloth: Kente of the Asante and Ewe Peoples,” which highlight the vibrantly woven Kente cloth that’s woven by the men. The geometric patterns convey history, morals, as well as proverbs of the both the Asante and Ewe.

Several examples of beadwork are shown along with a historical presentation. Glass beads were first introduced in the sixteenth century by Europeans, which were traded for gold and slaves, but also raw materials and ivory. In time, beadwork became an important artistic expression used in dress and regalia. Beads among certain tribes represented privilege of royalty and religious leaders as demonstrated by Nigeria’s Yoruba people. In South Africa, beads were commonly used as adornments and incorporated in clothing for daily wear and ceremonial attire.

Imported goods and techniques have also influenced African dress and textile, including Indonesian batiks, cotton fabric woven by British and Dutch mills.  Later African textile producers and designers entered the by the mid-twentieth century producing and creating their own designs ranging from daily attire to commemorative cloths celebrating holidays and other important events. 

Lastly, “Looking Both Ways” offers a look at the processes and techniques that reached France and the United States during the 1920s, and how African fashion was incorporated by fashion designers then and now still use elements in their textile designs and fashion.

To learn more about Global Patterns: Dress and Textiles in Africa, please visit



Please signup or login to comment