What is defined as textile art is art that uses varying materials and fibers to produce decorative, artistic objects. It’s one of the oldest forms of art in history and has played a part in practical and decorative man-made objects for hundreds of thousands of years. Across the African Continent, textile art has played a huge role in reflecting the individual cultures and styles of specific countries and areas.
Textiles have been at the center of trade and civilization for millennia and as such, the connections between textiles and art trace multiple historical, individual and collective memories embedded on the continent. The creative use of pattern, tapestry, weaving, embroidery, knitting, etc. in African textiles has been hugely influential across the world. However, it has often been left out of the contemporary art canon.
The exclusion of textile art has occurred for a number of reasons, mainly because it was dismissed as “women’s work”, and toed the line between art and craft. Perhaps also because of the practicality or decorative nature of textiles — clothing, bedding, floor and wall coverings — they were largely omitted from the narrative of contemporary art. The exclusion of textiles from the canon is also noted in the history of the Royal Academy of art which, in the 18th century, ruled that needlework and stitching wasn’t allowed to be exhibited. This is because textiles, originating from non-Westerner countries, were deemed as “improper” when compared to fine art.
Still Life: Sitting Down Textiles (2005/2007), video © Grace Ndiritu
There’s also another element of prejudice responsible here - for decades, stitching and the use of textiles was seen as women’s manual work, rather than artistic creativity to be valued. This is reflective of the sexism in the art world and society at large, a prejudice that’s persisted over the years and is responsible for lots of the negativity that textile art has had to face through history and even today. This gendered assignment and racist attitude toward certain artistic practices made it so the idea of textiles as an art medium and art form didn’t take hold until recently, despite its millennia of history.
But things are changing and we’ve experienced in recent years a renaissance in thread-based art. Some positive signs toward the continued strength of contemporary textile art in Africa is the recent Straus & Co. auction in early 2022, which offered a lot of unique South African textiles. The sale itself testifies to textiles as a major means of artistic expression for contemporary artists, as well a unique class for new and versed collectors.
Nowadays, many contemporary artists are weaving together a rich variety of textile art in new ways. This list, which is in no way complete, offers a taste of what contemporary artists working in the medium offer.
Harare-born artist Kresiah Mukwazhi incorporates textile collage techniques in her practice together with other techniques such as painting, tie-dye and printmaking. The roughly sewn and glued works draw on her personal experiences and observations of gender-based violence, and the abuse and exploitation of women— particularly of sex workers in Zimbabwe. Fabric is ubiquitous and while the artist makes use of garish leopard print, neon-coloured wings and all-too-sparkly sequins, the result is in a pointed remark towards the equally ubiquitous exploitation of women in society. What piques one's interest is that the artist uses materials which might mark a person as “cheap” but in the same stroke, turns the shabby scraps of fabric into a symbol of resistance.
Kresiah Mukwazhi, Send Me Your Nudes, 2018, mixed media, 182 x 134 cm. Courtesy SMAC
Working in leather offcuts and repurposed material, Abongile Sidzumo creates works that interrogate and also perhaps resist the notions of healing in post-apartheid South Africa — the visible stitches in the works suggest that the damage can’t be concealed but rather that pieces which have been crudely put together can’t hide the scar that remains, a reminder of the trauma that caused it. This isn’t rhetoric for the artist, his personal history is very much the making of the apartheid structures he critiques. Raised in Cape Town’s Langa township, a direct product of the urban areas act — his work is cut and sewn from his own experiences of unresolved socio-political issues such as land, labor and racial inequality.
Abongile Sidzumo , Waiting for the Return of Nxele, 2020, leather, nickel-plated steel, and rivets. Courtesy Everard Read.
Zohra Opoku’s mixed Ghanaian German heritage is fertile ground for the artist to explore collective memory as it relates to family history and wider cultural and racial identity. Combining photography and textile, particularly codes of dress such as kente, signifying a particular west African culture, and modest dress, the artist delves into what textile says about herself. Originally a student of fashion, the artist was drawn to alchemical processes such photography and printmaking. In her practice she uses screen-printing and photo transfer (taken from family albums) onto various natural fabrics often adding stitching and other textile adornments or sweeping brush strokes. Her works serve as a vehicle for her to connect to the abstract idea of identity in a tangible way.
Zohra Opoku, Unraveled Threads, 2017, screen print on cotton, canvas, linen,thread, Kente cloth, wool and acrylic paint, 230 x 140. Courtesy Contemporary&.
For Thania Petersen, a multi-disciplinary artist working in Cape Town, identity is also a theme. Petersen’s points of departure lay in Islam and colonial imperialism in South Africa together with its outcomes in the cape — the formation of a creolised community, made of former slaves, often referred to as the “Cape Malay”. In her practice, Petersen utilises the Islamic prayer mat, a tapestry familiar across the continent. Her use of this suggests that the artist is drawing a relationship between the private ritual of daily prayer and the public space. The artist's bright almost glowing tapestries become a magnet that attracts viewers, what we know about faith becomes a place to make further interrogations outside of popular assumptions.
Thania Petersen, Al Hurra, 2019, embroidery thread on cotton, 228 x 128 cm,
Maliza Kiasuwa interrogates her Bucharest born, Kinshasa raised, and Nairobi home configuration. “ I slyly transform everyday objects through a combining reductive methods of shredding , twisting , teasing and washing with constructive processes of weaving and dyeing,” says Kiasuwa. Self-taught, the artist collects her materials during walks and takes an interest in the regenerative processes of nature. Naturally this leads the artist into an inquiry about the cycle of life and death.
Maliza Kiasuwa, Disparate (II), 2022, wool, thread, metal rod, 183.5 x 131 cm. Courtesy Circle Art Gallery.
Fatima Tayob Moosa
With a background in interior design, Johannesburg-based artist Fatima Tayob Moosa’s relationship with design provides a background for the multi-disciplined artists approach to making textile works. It gives Moosa a lens for her practice, in how it provides her with an understanding of how the material works. Responding to personal turmoil, brought on by Covid-19, the artist found working in high heat to express and mimic the emotional intensity she battled. “I have used heat to melt and transform beeswax and fabric to express my emotions and state of being. Exploring how these materials respond to heat and go through various forms during melting and cooling has allowed me to find a voice and outlet for my thoughts and feelings,” says the artist.
Fatima Tayob Moosa, Everything in Creating has its Complement, 2022, crocheted wool and wire on wood, 44 x 18 x 14 cm.
Suraj Adekola also manipulates fabric but in this case the artist uses thick bleach as a painting medium to work on and dye adire — an indigo-dyed cloth made by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Adekola has adopted this method of bleaching adire cloth to both examine and celebrate blackness. Additionally, the artist disassembles and then reassembles his dyed fabrics, cutting forms and reorganising them to create a new relationship.