Fabric across the world: Michigan and Africa in textile conversation

In Metro Detroit, African fabrics are everywhere.
 
Dozens of local businesses on the Livernois Avenue of Fashion sell African imports. Cultural organizations like O.N.E mile leverage the Afrofuturistic aesthetics that celebrate cultural pioneers like George Clinton in Detroit’s North End neighborhood. Detroit writer and culture maven Marsha Battle Philpot is known for wearing the fabrics as part of her multicultural flair. And the annual African World Festival, hosted by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, a celebration of the African diaspora’s diversity, shared heritage and cultures, is a great place to connect with international fabric vendors bringing an eye-popping array of imported fabrics to connect with an eager local market.

But as is often the case with long-distance cultural exchange, there is the chance of messages being lost in translation. Fabrics from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and other countries are designed and executed with many layers of meaning, sometimes obscured by the beauty and aesthetic value of these fabrics as objects.
 
Where do these fabrics come from? How do they make their way into our lives? And what are they trying to tell us?
 
For a maker’s perspective, I spoke with Marcelyn Bennett-Carpenter, longtime weaving instructor at Kingswood, Cranbrook’s Upper School. In 2000, Cranbrook Schools began a relationship with the small village of Namtenga, located in the nation of Burkina Faso, Africa. Cranbrook’s involvement with Namtenga was built on a relationship started by (then) Brookside Lower School parent Mike Lavoie, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso in the 1970s. The daughter of his host family Noelie Baguian Sandouidi—only three years old at the time—and her brother Simeon Baguian, came to visit Cranbrook as a grown woman in 2005.
 
The tour of the Kingswood Weaving Studio sparked an idea, and Sandouidi worked with Lavoie, Bennett-Carpenter, and Cranbrook to set up a sister weaving studio in her village of Namtenga. Using funding from Cranbrook, The Namtenga Soundo Babisi (the Weaving Sisters of Namtenga) hired a local master weaver to teach this traditional practice to  30 women from the village, who now dye and weave one-of-a-kind textiles for sale during the slow times of the dry season.
 
“Their weaving is pretty traditional,” says Bennett-Carpenter. “It’s very typical cloth that’s woven in Burkina.”
 
Bennett-Carpenter traveled with Lavoie, and Margaret and Peter Charney from Brookside to Namtenga for the 2007 opening of the studio, which has been going strong ever since.
 
“I think because they export to the United States, they’re considered the haute couture,” says Bennett-Carpenter. “I’ve been told they’re sought out. One thing we did a couple of years ago is to help them open a boutique in a town nearby, so they have a market to sell.”
 
Culturally, Burkina Faso is a polygamist society, and women from family groups will sometimes celebrate special events by commissioning a special fabric to be transformed into garments for all the women of a given family unit. 
 
This direct international exchange has fostered ongoing communication between Cranbrook Schools and Namtenga, and despite the very recent passing of Mike Lavoie, there is much hope that these institutions will remain bound together.
 
A more typical route for fabrics is through retail importers, such as Yemisi Bamisaye, owner of Classic Expressions, which recently opened in Oak Park, Michigan. A native of Nigeria, Bamisaye has done lots of research on the fabrics she imports, which include mudcloth from Mali, Egyptian Kampala, Kente cloth from Ghana, and fabrics that play an important role in the festival and daily life of tribes in Nigeria.
 
Though these mostly mass-manufactured fabrics are associated with African nations, they are in fact part of a more complicated history surrounding Dutch trade in the East Indies (now Indonesia). Called “Dutch wax prints” many of these fabrics use a wax-relief printing that resembles a sophisticated form of tie-dye, using Dutch wax to block out motifs in brightly-dyed fabrics, resulting in the batik prints commonly associated with Indonesia. It's speculated that this practice migrated to Africa when West African soldiers were used by the Dutch to fight in the West Indies, and brought the techniques for making these fabrics back home with them following their conscription.
 
Some fabrics have general meanings, associated with specific rituals or social occasions.
 
“Let’s say you’re single,” says Bamisaye, “and you are at the age of marriage and suitors are supposed to be coming—there are fabrics with designs on it that are made for that purpose, such that when you tie your wrap on, the men know that you’re available.”

“There’s a tribe in Nigeria called Ibo [also sometimes Igbo],” she continues, “Their fabrics that look like a fan of peacock feathers—they wear that fabric when everything is ripe on the farm, and they have a celebration like a festival. They make it into two wrappers and tie it on top of each other—one long and one short one—and then wear the blouse, and that’s what they wear for the celebration of the harvest, in Ibo land.”
 
Other types of fabric have an even more codified vocabulary, such as Kente cloth from Ghana, any piece of which employs a combination of dozens of symbols, carefully selected for the occasion.
 
“This is the symbol of learning from the past,” said Bamisaye, pointing out one of the designs. “‘Return and get it’ means the ability for you to learn something today and remember it in future. So that would be appropriate to put on clothing for kids that are going to school or people that are learning some kind of trade—that would be perfect for them.”
 
There is a sense that the use of these symbols calls a particular energy to the wearer of the fabric, to support activities like learning, seeking love, or becoming pregnant.
 
Of course, many of these specifics may be lost when it comes to the people who purchase these fabrics for their own projects—but sometimes the assignment of one’s own meaning is as significant as the original intentions.
 
Ypsilanti-based master quilter Theadra Fleming has forgotten more about quilting than most people will ever know, and her basement workshop houses dozens of examples of her work, each rich with its own set of associations—to say nothing of her fabric collection, some examples of which she wouldn’t dream of cutting.
 
“It was hard for me to cut up the [African] fabrics,” says Fleming, "partly because I found the designs so characteristic of the culture—and because the colors are hard to match. It’s definitely more clothing material than quilting, because you lose a lot of those vivid designs when you start cutting it up.”

 
 
Nonetheless, among Fleming’s many exquisite finished pieces and works in progress are at least a few that use African fabrics, as well as those that directly reference a more localized history of African Americans in our country.
 
“In my library there, there’s a picture of a quilt believed to be made by an enslaved young girl,” she says, unfolding a flowery composition in purples and magenta, “so this honors her work. The picture was there, so I managed to replicate her pattern.”
 
It’s clear that Fleming regards certain pieces of fabrics nearly as complete works in their own right—she recognizes the craft in mudcloth, one artist to another—and others more as the raw materials to be transformed into her own compositions.
 
“There are two women that work in Ghana,” says Fleming, showing a bright quilt that’s a series of concentric squares. “Their organization is called “Ghana”—they learned a traditional dyeing technique, and what they do is bring it back and sell it here, and the money goes back into furthering their endeavors. They’ve built small schools, they provide nets for the women, small animals for their farm. So this honors what they’re doing.”

Photos of Namtenga courtesy of Cranbrook. All other photos by Sarah Rose Sharp.
 
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