February issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Society | Published 12 years ago

Sand and Silk, an exhibition of textiles from Africa, at the Mohatta Palace Museum (January 10 to February 30), displayed the skill and creativity of the African people through fabric, ranging from utilitarian cloth to ceremonial headgear, arranged in an authentic African ambience in two large rooms at the museum.

From the private collection of John Gillow, an inveterate collector of indigenous textiles from around the world, mainly Asia, Africa and South East Asia, the exhibition is intended to be a meeting point of cultures from Africa and the subcontinent. Gillow started his collection in the ’60s, when as a 17-year-old he discovered the splendour of cloth in a bustling bazaar in Istanbul. Enchanted by textiles, where they came from and who made them, Gillow has followed his quest for cloth for several decades now, focusing on their place in society and how history is woven into their warp.

The exhibition features the aspect of a shared methodology for creating traditional textiles in Africa and Asia; for example, the use of indigo dye is a shared technique, as is the use of cowrie shells to embellish cloth. Both cultures also use unique symbols to share stories of the women who made them. The textiles on display date from early to the mid-twentieth century and employ techniques such as tie-and-dye, bead work, embroidery, shell decoration, stitched resist work and cut-pile raphia embroidery from different geographical regions of Africa.

Gillow’s passion for travel has brought him innumerable times to the subcontinent, where he has added to his textile collection with pieces from Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, and Sindh in Pakistan. Besides being a dedicated collector and traveller, he is also the author of African Textiles: Colours and Creativity Across a Continent, World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques, Traditional Indonesian Textiles, Textiles of the Islamic World, and the co-author of Indian Textiles.

The exhibition is a must-see to learn more about traditional fabrics and garments from the African continent, especially North and West Africa.

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “A Quest for Cloth.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.