US museums stage ‘kanga’ and ‘kitenge’ shows

Two US museums are simultaneously staging the first major exhibitions in North America of kanga and kitenge textiles from Kenya and Tanzania.

Saturday March 21 2009

 Mr Kenya and Miss World Kenya pose for a photo during  a past Kitenge festival at the Bomb Blast Memorial grounds in Nairobi. Photo/FILE

Mr Kenya and Miss World Kenya pose for a photo during a past Kitenge festival at the Bomb Blast Memorial grounds in Nairobi. Photo/FILE 

By KEVIN J KELLEY in New York

Two US museums are simultaneously staging the first major exhibitions in North America of kanga and kitenge textiles from Kenya and Tanzania.

These institutional displays, along with a related book to be published by one of the museums, are serving to elevate the colourful textiles to the status of art works and have begun to spark interest from other museums as well as from private collectors.

Kelly Armor, the organiser of the larger of the two shows, says that until now kangas and kitenges have been “under the radar of the art world. When attention has been paid to textiles from Africa, it’s been focused on kente cloth from West Africa.

That’s hopefully going to change as more people get a look at East African textiles.”

The show that Ms Armor arranged can be seen at the Erie Art Museum in the state of Pennsylvania until the middle of next month. She expects that it will then travel to other museums around the United States during the next few years.

More than 300 of the wraps and cloths are included in the Erie exhibit entitled Kangas and Kitenges: Cloth and Culture in East Africa.

Many hang on the museum walls, stretched like paintings on canvas, while some are displayed as they would be in a marketplace in Mombasa or Dar es Salaam. A few are set aside to be worn by visitors.

The other show runs until early May at Empire State College, a branch of the State University of New York. It features about 20 kangas and kitenges as well as T-shirts with political images and slogans.

All are hung from the gallery’s ceiling so they sway in response to viewers’ movements.

Private collection

Most of the pieces at Empire State College, allocated in the city of Syracuse, come from the private collection of two African scholars at Yale University.

Most of the kangas and kitenges at the Erie Art Museum were bought by Ms Armor beginning in the 1980s when she lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a student conducting research on indigenous music.

The US State Department is helping to support the Erie show, as is the private Coby Foundation.

It’s a coincidence that two shows of kangas and kitenges are taking place at the same time in neighbouring states. Indeed, the curator of each exhibit did not know about the other until alerted by a Sunday Nation correspondent.

Both shows emphasise the role kangas play in everyday life in parts of Kenya and Tanzania.

“For many women, kangas are a document of their lives,” Ms Armor says. “Africans may actually think it strange to have an exhibit of them because they’re such an ordinary part of life.”

Alan Stankiewicz, an Empire State College arts professor, offers a similar view.

“From cradling babies to protecting work clothes from urban grime, kangas are the perfect example of form following function while bridging bold design with intense colour. Even the well-worn kangas, faded by Jik, tell stories or celebrate events important to the wearer.”

There’s been “a wonderful response” by visitors to the Erie show, Ms Armor says. “A lot of these pieces are really eye-popping. People are amazed when they see them.”

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