African textiles can inspire home decorators, collectors


To see the bold designs and lush colors of "African Improvisations," the new exhibit of African textiles which opens today at the Walters Art Gallery, is to see music captured in a woven web.

Patterns flow through each cloth in sophisticated asymmetry -- like jazz, spontaneous and intuitive, felt and sensed more than analyzed.

This collection of 28 textiles, most from West Africa and most made as articles of clothing, includes raffia panels from the Kuba people of Zaire, strip-woven cotton wrappers from the Yoruba of Nigeria and mudcloth from the Bamama people of Mali, and is being presented in a way that relates their designs to the creation of jazz.

But unlike other exhibits you'll see in museums -- where you can't ever hope to own anything more than a print or a reproduction -- African textiles are obtainable and affordable. This display can give you the inspiration to start your own collection. Or just show you the possible ways of decorating with textiles.

Local ethnic and design stores occasionally have samples of African textiles. Prices vary from $20 up to several hundreds of dollars, so if you're unfamiliar with values, buy them first as you would any decorative accessory -- going by what you like and how much it would be worth to you to have the enjoyment of it. Ask questions and as you learn, you can move comfortably into buying more sophisticated and expensive textiles.

Examples of African textiles can be found at the Nubian Brothers (783-1340) at 222 N. Paca St., where they have fabrics from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Nigeria as well as kente cloth from the Asanti tribe of Ghana and mudcloth from Somali. Designer Somari usually uses the cloth to create his custom clothing, but will also sell it by lengths. There are also a few pieces of mudcloth from Mali at the Store Ltd. (323-2350) in the Village of Cross Keys.

The Smithsonian's Museum of African Art in Washington also has some African textiles for sale in its museum shop.

Textiles in the exhibit are mounted three ways, according to Carla Brenner, coordinator of exhibitions and in-house curator of this show, which originated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

One employs a simple muslin sleeve which is sewn to the top of the textile. "They take careful small stitches, but a lot of them, to relieve the stress," she says. "Then a galvanized rod is slipped through that sleeve and attached to the wall. You can do the same thing at the bottom."

An increasingly popular way to hang textiles is to use touch fasteners, she says. "It works basically the same way. You sew the [fastening material] onto a linen or muslin panel, then sew that to the textile -- putting the soft, fleecy part on the textile and the hook part onto a board which you bolt to the wall.

"That way you can adjust the textile. If you make it perfectly horizontal at the top, it may hang a little more crookedly than you want," she says, so by using touch fasteners you can adjust it.

Some pieces of clothing are carefully stitched to a muslin panel which is stretched over a wooden frame as canvas is stretched for a painting.

There are several events scheduled in conjunction with this exhibit, including jazz concerts and lectures, a dance concert by Maria Broom, and two lectures that deal directly with textiles. On April 11 at 8 p.m., Lisa Aronson, an assistant professor in art at Skidmore College, will present a lecture entitled, "African Cloth as Language," in which she will show how certain West African societies use textiles to record and transmit information. There is a $5 admission, $4 for students and seniors.

On April 14 from 3 to 5 p.m., there will be "Afternoon with African-American Artists: the Scott-Caldwell Tradition and African Fiber Fusion," in which Baltimorean Joyce Scott and Xenobia Bailey of New York will talk about the parallels between African-inspired designs and the evolution of blues, jazz and gospel. Ms. Scott is a visual and performing artist while Ms. Bailey is a designer of African hats whose creations have appeared in Benetton advertisements and in Spike Lee's movie "Do the Right Thing". Tickets are $6, $5 for seniors and students.

The Walters, along with WJZ-TV, will sponsor a Family Festival on April 21 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. that will feature West African dances by the KanKouran dance company, storytelling by Mary Carter Smith, a fashion show from Infinity Designs, children's craft activities and a book exhibit. The festival is free with museum admission.

The Walters Art Gallery, 600 North Charles St., is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Admission is $3 per person, $2 for senior citizens and free for students and those 18 years old and younger. On Wednesdays admission is free to everyone. The telephone number is 547-9000.

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