Why Teach the Crafts of African Fashion?
The Crafts of African Fashion initiative centers on the idea of sustaining the heritage arts such as leatherwork, weaving, and resist-dye techniques in African fashion. Throughout the ten days of the 2018 Folklife Festival, African artisans gave workshops and demonstrations on their crafts and sold their wares in the Festival Marketplace.
As we learned, educational forums and intergenerational inheritance of various crafts are crucial to the heritage arts’ sustainability. Not so surprisingly, all of the featured artisans also work professionally in education.
Master leather craftsman Soumana Saley founded a school in Niger called ONG DIMA—Dispositif d’Initiatives pour les Metiers de l’Artisanat or “Initiative for the Craft Trades” in English. Their aim is to “develop neighborhood learning platforms for young people and to promote and develop channels of distribution of artisan products to contribute to the socioeconomic development of its members and artisans in general.”
Anyone who had the pleasure of speaking with Saley at the Festival may have noticed his skill and penchant for speaking in inspirational, instructive maxims. Even though I was not his student, he had advice for me regardless. When we parted ways, he said to me something I appreciated: “Be strong. Know what you want in life.”
Master kente cloth weaver Kwasi Asare teaches high school math in the D.C. area. After I learned of his work as a teacher, everything suddenly made sense. The way he could break down the daunting task of weaving on loom in a simple pattern, that the password to his iPhone was some kind of math riddle, and the gorgeous geometric patterns in his cloth—it all added up.
He also authored a fictional children’s book called Kwasi and the Kente Colors that served as a fabulous resource for the loom workshops. It was something special to watch kids working on their kente bookmarks while learning about the history of kente cloth through a first-person story. I thought it was brilliant. The story follows a boy named Kwasi, i.e. an Akan boy born on a Sunday, who secretly learned how to weave despite his parents’ disapproval. Asare’s personal story was actually a bit different, having learned weaving from his father. Master weaver Andrew Eugene Asare wove the kente cloth that was presented to the United Nations upon Ghana’s independence in 1957.
Asare now continues his father’s Dento Mills in Nsawam, Ghana. His own son, Kofi, is also learning to weave kente. Asare was invited to weave a new kente cloth tapestry for the United Nations upon Ghana’s fiftieth anniversary as a nation.Clearly, intergenerational transfer of skill is important to this family. Asare often explained that one of his kente designs holds the meaning, “my skill is exhausted,” necessitating that the next generation learn and continue the tradition.
After living in Africa for over thirty years, textile artist and designer Cynthia Sands now offers classes on textile design in Washington, D.C. During stints in Zaire, Uganda, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, and Guyana, she studied the symbols and designs of textiles worn by indigenous Africans, calling them “indigenous newspaper—a visual record and organic methodology that preserves traditional art forms.”
At the Festival, Sands extended that knowledge to the public, teaching workshops on adinkra symbols, representing particular African maxims, and the Hand of Fatima, a popular symbol of protection in Northern Africa. She asked the young children what symbol they would pick to express themselves and why. That they had answers, and emphatic ones at that, was quite an inspiration. It made evident the link between adinkra and identity, especially identity through a lens of community: adinkra can serve as a way to inherit and learn about the history of your own culture, while also allowing you to place yourself in it, to tell your own story through symbols.
Master Ewe kente cloth weaver Chapuchi Bobbo Ahiagble is an educator who gives lectures, workshops, and demonstrations at art institutions and schools across the country. His demonstrations were highly participatory, much to the delight of those who attended. Children helped with winding bobbins for the shuttles (a task he did as a child in his father’s workshop), and other visitors helped lay out kente strips on the floor so Ahiagble could explain how they tell a larger story together. Although he can only see a portion of the eventual composition while on the loom, there is a greater composition in the works with specific proverbial meanings and associations, stories to tell, or provocative statements to make. One design carried the meaning, “Every strong man will surely die,” for example.
Ahiagble wore an Ewe kente smock for one of his demonstrations that had been passed down in his family for generations. He plans to pass it down to his own children. He showed the audience the little labels along the inside of the hem that detais what family event or milestone each kente strip commemorates. The smock made manifest for the public, and for me, the intergenerational longevity of Ewe kente, a longstanding African craft tradition, a textile that tells stories just like Sands’ “indigenous newspapers.”
Throughout the Festival, various African arts were presented as heritage passed down from generation to generation within a family. But these artisans know that the sustainability of their crafts relies not only on intergenerational inheritance but also through educational programming for wider audiences.
Even though we were looking at traditions, another theme emerged: Afrofuturism. Coined by Mark Dery in 1994, Afrofuturism describes a cultural philosophy and aesthetic that imagines utopic African and African Diasporic futures shaped by technology and innovation. It necessitates the transmission of skills, knowledge, and heritage in these new ways. So it was fitting that program curator Diana N’Diaye wore a T-shirt that read “Afrofuturism” and a handmade necklace adorned with words popularized by many, from Dr. William Melvin Kelly to Childish Gambino. It is important to maintain, for future generations, our literacy of various African cloths and craft techniques, to understand their meanings and their significance. To quote N’Diaye’s necklace, it is important to “stay woke.”
Brianne Chapelle is the Katzenberger Art History Intern for the Crafts of African Fashion initiative at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a recent graduate of McGill University in Montréal and a hopeful lifelong learner.