A curator looking at textiles in London

As part of RAMM’s Discovering Worlds: Africa project, Dr. Julie Hudson as a lead curator of the Africa collections at the British Museum (a key project partner) was invited to examine and interpret all of the woven Nigerian textiles in the ethnography collection. The majority of these textiles had been acquired by colonial officers who had been based in Nigeria. Some of these donor stories are currently being explored.

At Dr. Hudson’s invitation, I spent a day at the British Museum store in Blythe House to examine their collection of Nigerian textiles. This was an opportunity for RAMM’s Curator of Ethnography to explore comparative items in a national  collection. As one can imagine, the British Museum has quite the assortment of woven and embroidered cloth.

Akwete cloth

One recommendation made by Dr. Hudson was for RAMM to acquire contemporary examples of Akwete cloth – RAMM has only one example that is traditionally made on a single-heddle wide vertical loom.

Fig.1 Igbo woven cloth from the village of Akwete, SE Nigeria (Accn 284/1998/27 L.1780 x W.1160mm)

The production of cloth in Akwete is conducted by women; the art is very old, it is said to be as old as the Igbo nation itself. Akwete is one of many major centres of textile production and is located in Abia state, south east Nigeria.

One particular type of Akwete utilises cotton and is decorated with red and black motifs on a white background. RAMM’s example is of this style; a single width of cloth composed of supplementary weft float patterns in thicker red cotton that feature the ikaki or tortoise motif. These designs feature only on one side, not both.

While several motifs are used by the Igbo, the tortoise motif was once used by members of the royal family. Those born out of the aristocracy caught wearing the design were punished or were sold into slavery.

Akwete women

Akwete women are involved in all three cotton processes; ginning – where cotton fibres and seeds are separated; bowing – making the cotton fibres fluffy and spinning – pulling cotton fibres into thread.

Raffia is also used to decorate such textiles and women are actively involved in extracting the fibre from the thorny raffia palm fronds, starting from the tip and splitting it. All of these processes, including the weaving, are labour intensive. RAMM’s example was acquired by art teacher and textiles specialist Nancy Stanfield when she lived in Nigeria between 1948 and 1963.

Research and display work

RAMM was awarded Designation funding by the Arts Council in 2016 and this helped the museum to continue with its Discovering Worlds project which sees new research focused on the Africa collection. As with the work done on the Pacific collections, RAMM is improving the interpretation of its African collection which will make it more accessible to our visitors.

The Akwete cloth discussed above will feature in a major redisplay of RAMM’s African collection in 2018.