Tag Archives: african textiles

Global Africa, Fitchburg Art Museum, Ife Franklin


me with Ife Franklin and Catharine Sasanov

In spite of terrible weather and competition from an afternoon Patriot’s game, the Global Africa opening reception at the Fitchburg Art Museum two weeks ago was wonderful and well-attended. The three of us above, plus the reporter Clennon King, were present — representing a mini-reunion from the Slave Dwelling Project‘s overnight at the Royall House Slave Quarters a month back*. Ellen Watters Sullivan would have been there too if the Cape hadn’t been suffering gale-force winds.

musician Solomon Murungu

musician Solomon Murungu

GLOBAL AFRICA: Creativity, Continuity and Change in African Art, an exhibition of classic, contemporary and commissioned art objects including masks, masquerades with videos, photographs, carved portraits, textiles, metal arts as currency, and an interactive Learning Lounge for all ages.” [From the Fitchburg Art Museum’s website].

In the foyer, Solomon Murungu’s music filled the cathedral-ceilinged space with haunting melodies which I later learned were traditional Shona ceremonial songs (read more about him here). It was amazing to me how much mood and sound came from his single instrument — the mbira.
african textile-elephant-indigo-deemallonThere was a buffet of delicious Brazilian food (my favorite? the fried plantains). And, African fabric was draped around almost as an afterthought.

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Ife Franklin double exposed with shaman

What follows are pictures from the day** mixed in with other images that I took back in March at a Boston exhibit of Ife Franklin’s incredible work.


Ife Franklin emerging from Slave Cabin, Boston


this is the piece purchased by the Fitchburg Art Museum

The Boston Globe has featured Ife’s work many times. One particularly nice article is here.  I won’t try to describe the spirit and integrity and visual pizzazz of her work, or I will never get this post up, but I encourage you to read about her. Not surprisingly, her indigo pieces are among my favorites.

IMG_6064 IMG_6070 IMG_6073The ‘Masquerade Ensemble’ by Cuban artist Nelson Montenegro (2013), has visual and ritual ties to Nigeria. I was taken by the patchwork, of course, and learned that the rafia cuffs and neck adornment ‘refer to sacred forests’. The bells at the waist were to dispel negative energy. The visiting shaman in the gallery also wore bells — around his ankles.
fitchburg art museum



Ife Franklin. Look at those textiles!

yours truly in Boston

yours truly in Boston

ifefranklin-boston-indigo indigo-ifefranklin-slavecabin-deemallon IMG_7727 indigo-ifefranklin-deemallon ifefranklin indigo-ifefranklin indigo-ifefranklin cowries-ifefranklin-indigo shibori-indigo-ifefranklin africanritual-ifefranklin


* My reflections on the Royall House Slave Quarters overnight are here. The Slave Dwelling Project founder, Joseph McGill, Jr., Catharine Sasanov’s and Ellen Watters Sullivan’s reflections on the night in Medford are here. Clennon King was handing out copies of his newly printed article about the experience, featured in that Sunday’s Boston Globe.

** Sorry to make you suffer through my enthusiastic experiments with the DianaPhotoApp. I think I’d had it about a week at the time.

Library kicks


Lynda Barry

my sketchbook


gourd stamps


CALABASH-carved African stamps for adinkra cloth

drawn from John Gillow’s book, “African Textiles”

It was a different exercise to draw and shade these shapes after reading sections of Lynda Barry’s HILARIOUS and INSPIRING book.  Very different.

It is full of tips about how to keep drawing, why to keep drawing, and funny, funny vignettes as well.

The book, African Textiles, is mine and I have barely scratched its surface – ALSO inspiring.  For those who don’t know, adinkra fabrics are produced by the West Coast Africans in Ghana.  The process described by Gillow goes like this — makers carve the gourds and create a handle from palm splints.  The printer draws a grid onto the cloth that is to be stamped.  “A thick dark goo” is made by boiling badee tree root bark that has been mixed with iron slag.  The printer then prints with the gourd stamps onto the cloth and the fabric is then hung outside overnight “to catch the dew”.

Ferns, Fractals, and African Textiles

“Fractals are characterized by repetition of similar patterns at ever diminishing scales.”

By now most of us know that fractals are found throughout nature.  Ferns, trees, and snowflakes are fractals, as well as lungs, branching river basins and storm turbulence patterns.  But who knew that traditional African culture uses fractals in village layouts, architecture, textile design, and divination methods?

That’s the topic of Ron Eglash’s book, African Fractals, Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. An ethno-mathematician, Eglash spent a year studying fractals in Africa after looking at an aerial photograph of a traditional settlement and noticing that it was laid out in a fractal.

Fractal model of Balla Village

What he discovered was a broad, sophisticated, and conscious use of fractal mathematics in many sectors of African life.  Often the use of fractals extended beyond design, with social or religious concepts embedded in the complicated layouts.

Aerial — Palace of the chief in a city in Cameroon

For instance, in the palace depicted above, as one walks in toward the Chief’s chambers, increasing amounts of politeness are expected and signaled by the tightening spiral.  In another exampled cited by Eglash, as young children in one village age, they are taught geometric patterns with increasing complexity, while simultaneously being taught the village’s myths (also incrementally).

blanket with fractal design

The use of sophisticated algorithms is not “merely intuitive”, or simply good design, Eglash explains, but a very deliberate use of self-similar structures.  The divination method employed by the Bamana people (by making strike marks in the sand) provided the mathematical basis for the binary code, which leads to Eglash’s assertion that every digital circuit in the world is based on African mathematics.

African patterning style is NOT a design practice found generally among indigenous cultures, as many think upon learning about this  (and let’s be clear, to be so VERY shocked that a high level of mathematics is routinely, elegantly and ritually employed by many African societies is plainly racist).  Native American design, by contrast, plays with circular and four-fold symmetry.

On Eglash’s website, there are free applets that run in the browser where you can play with iterations of simple lines and watch their ever  increasing complexity.  What might be of interest to a quilter is how much the demonstration of the rectangular shape (representative of some traditional African settlements) looks like a log cabin quilt being made.

What traditional quilting patterns are fractals?  Changes in scale are required, as well as repetition, otherwise, MOST traditional quilts would be fractals.  Are the patterns created by tie-dye and some shibori methods fractals?  My guess is some are, yes.  Celtic knots are fractals.  The ferns emerging from the felt house are, and here they are nearly forming a heart as well.

Felt House, Day 11

Well, lest I’ve overly impressed you with my ability to restate ideas from  a 16 minute-lecture (2007 TED Eglash) let me end by saying it’s time to go watch American Idol —

which is to say, the show has been taping for at least 25 minutes, allowing me to skip 20 out of 21 words that Ryan Seacrest utters (some nights? it takes me 10 minutes to watch the show).

(And, BTW, I’m rooting for Crystal Bowersox or Lee Dewyze).

Quotes and images from Ron Eglash used with his permission.