African Textiles Today (British Museum Press)

African Textiles Today by Chris Spring, The British Museum Press: 2012

“The history of Africa can be read in cloth,” explains Chris Spring’s most recent book on the continent’s collection he curates at the British Museum. A non-chronological structure is used here which is refreshing, with chapters instead focused around both geographic and thematic examples. Quite suitably, images drive the content. Four snapshot stories open the book; another four provide the conclusion. It is diversity and visual variety that emerge as the key objectives, which for a region as massive as the entire continent of Africa is understandable.

One image per page is the norm throughout this image-led book. Expanded captions are used throughout to share local knowledge crucial to understanding the intended meaning of many of the textiles included. For example, a cotton wax-print textile of a fan is noted as confounding its original collection that questioned what wearer would have the means to acquire an electric fan or the electricity to run the object. Economic assumptions aside, Spring explains that a popular dance in Gambia and Senegal coined ventileur or “electric fan” sheds light on a more likely agenda behind the meaning of the design.

The extended captions work so well that this system would have been helpful to see throughout. In fact the content of the caption writing and body of the text is similar, even down to including endnotes that are used across the book. Instead, disconcertingly large font and unnecessary subheadings are used in the introduction, chapter 8 and the conclusion. Regrettably, this design decision disrupts the flow of reading in these areas. The upshot is visual confusion.

One of the overriding messages this book provides is an acknowledgement of the trends that appear throughout the diverse visual cultures of the African continent. The book closes with an image from Duro Olowu’s 2011 collection, which also graces the cover of some editions of Helen Jennings’ recent New African Fashion (Prestel: 2011). Spring responds to Jennings’ statement that “Africa is fashion’s new frontier” by suggesting that beyond a current trend, textiles are a rich legacy that have long made Africa the site of fashion both on the continent, and through trade and exchange abroad.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 50: 86)