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design without end

Last week, The New York Times printed one of the most troubling articles that I’ve ever seen in the mainstream press. It would seem that the travel section, and the food and fashion pages are the last remaining places in America where a certain brusquely racist language is permissible. Those sections, apparently, are not required to move on from 19th century attitudes.

This particular article, by one Suzy Menkes, was unpromisingly titled, Out of Africa. The title is a triple reference, though it is unlikely Menkes was aware of all the layers involved. The 1985 film of that name, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, used Africa purely as a backdrop for the romantic entanglements of a group of white settlers. The sunsets are magnificent, the land is broad and strong, awaiting conquerors, and the animals are wonderful. In the film, as well as in the 1937 Isak Dinesen book of the same title, blacks are in a servile position, there to provide little more than local colour.

Dinesen’s own title probably came from a phrase by the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder. “Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre,” Pliny wrote; “Africa always brings us something new.” The quotation is often rendered in a subtly different form: “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” which means “always something new out of Africa.” In both forms, the intent is to present Africa as a source of the weird, the exotic, and the unbelievable. Once, hearing a story he couldn’t quite believe, Aristotle is alleged to have muttered, “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.” Out of Africa? Unbelievable.

And so Menkes’ New York Times article, some 2000 years after Pliny’s book, shamelessly revisits the same tropes. The ostensible point of the piece is to relay news of how much the haute couture of Vuitton, Dior and Gaultier owe to African inspiration this season. Other than the obvious objection that this is not news, any sensible reader is immediately troubled by Menkes’ language and descriptions. The article begins: “The masked face with its feathers of hair glares from the instep.” A shoe is characterised as a “savage hybrid,” for the designers, “African style is a drumbeat,” and the article is littered with words like “exotica,” “spicy,” “tribal,” and “wild.”

Is this a joke? Sadly, no: Menkes, and presumably her editor, are in deadly earnest. When they look at “Africa’s tribal fabrics,” what they see is savagery. Every paragraph of the story contains an insult, and she ends the piece with perhaps the deepest insult of all: “The irony is that one step on African soil in this high and mighty footwear would probably bring even a hardened fashionista to her knees.” Are there no buildings in Africa? No roads? No flat surfaces? Not according to Menkes, but if one were to wear the flat strappy sandals, then one could walk “on the shores of the Limpopo as in the world’s fashion capitals.”

Unfortunately, this sneering attitude to Africa and Africans is not unusual. It goes on because there is no one to complain about it, or complaints are ignored. Menkes, in fact, wrote a virtually identical piece for the Times in 1997, screeching about jungle animals and tribal bangles. “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”-many Western commentators care only about the peculiar and the savage. Reading them, one would think the likes of Franz Fanon, Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire had never published a word.

But there are some who do get it, who get that Africa is various and magnificent, not merely in the general but in the particular. A starker counter to Menkes’ article could hardly be imagined than the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition on African textiles. One might expect that such a show would simply be wall after wall of pretty fabric, but something far more sophisticated is at work.

The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End seeks to understand the inner world of textiles, an art form that has, for too long, had only a tenuous grip on the respect of collectors. This is strange because, even in the Renaissance, tapestries were more expensive and more highly valued than paintings. In the case of Africa, textiles continue to occupy a complex of meanings, from materials made for everyday use to objects woven for sacred purposes. One of the most striking pieces in the show (which is curated by Alisa LaGamma) is a Hausa men’s tunic from the late 19th century. Every inch of it has been stitched with blessings and protective verses from the Koran, and it has thus been transformed from a shirt into a mantle of impermeable protection. The show also contains dozens of examples of restless creativity: lovely hand-loom pieces from the Ewe people, woven silk tapestries from Madagascar, tie-dye from the Gambia, and early 20th-century Yoruba adire. The cumulative effect is stunning.

But the Design Without End really soars in the way it incorporates contemporary African artists’ encounters with African fabric. “Between Heaven and Earth,” a luminous “metal textile” piece by Ghanaian-born Nsukka-resident artist El Anatsui, is made entirely of collected aluminium bottle-caps stitched together with copper wire. The shimmering result brings to mind kente cloth and at the same time looks like a medieval mosaic. Anatsui has said that he is influenced by Sonya Clark’s formulation: “Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners.” It is a profound truth. For us, cloth commemorates and honours, it enfolds and it sacralises.

A wall-hanging piece in the show, by Yinka Shonibare, consisting of a hundred small panels, employs ankara (Dutch-wax print) in combination with acrylic paint. Another wonderful piece is “Nigerian Woman Shopping” by Sokari Douglas Camp, a life-size open-work steel sculpture in which adire has been transmuted into metal. And, in photography, there are several prints from the Malian genius Seydou Keita (1921-2001), who ran a portrait studio in Bamako from the 1940s to the early 60s, and was fond of juxtaposing his clients’ brightly patterned clothing against equally exuberant backgrounds.

Was there any chance at all that the New York Times’ fashion writer had seen this show? In its form, its content and its tone, the show respects African enterprise and African creative diversity. It’s an old lesson by now, that the way to really understand a people (or a group of peoples) is to pay attention to what they value. All across Africa, there is careful attention and vigilance where cloth is concerned. It is like a little window into the soul of our various peoples.

But perhaps it would be too much to ask that this be understood by those who are only after strappy sandals, something comfortable to wear on the banks of the Limpopo.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before “ex Africa semper aliquid novi” gains a richer meaning: that African ideas, African ideals and African cultural practices can refresh a Western world staggering towards exhaustion. It can happen, but if it does, it can only begin with respect.

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