This exhibition focuses on the accomplishments of African weavers, dyers, bead embroiderers, and tailors, and highlights continuities, innovation, and the exchange of ideas from within and without that mark dress and textile production in Africa. More than any other artistic expression, dress and textile production in Africa demonstrates the continuous links of the Continent with the outside world. Throughout centuries, African textile artists seamlessly and joyfully integrated into their visual vocabulary new design elements and new materials such as glass beads, buttons, and fabrics that arrived as the result of trade with Europe and places as far away as India and Indonesia. They added to or transformed existing traditions, and at times created new types of textiles and garments. Beadwork among the Ndebele peoples of South Africa and the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria, Kente cloth in Ghana and Togo, and Yoruba indigo-dyed cloths called Adire are among the highlights of the display.
Africans, in particular those living along the coasts, have been in contact with Europeans and other foreigners since the sixteenth century. Therefore, it is not surprising that clothing styles common in Europe also appeared early on among African elites. Certainly by the late nineteenth century, when many African regions had come under colonial rule, salaried employees who worked for colonial administrations, merchants, and increasingly the educated residents of growing urban centers were aware of fashion trends in Europe and began to follow them. They picked and chose inventing new hybrid styles, and always went with the times. Trade cloth and photographs help explore these aspects of African creativity.
The adoption of new ideas was not a one-way street, however: a small section in the exhibition demonstrates the way in which Europeans and Americans were equally intrigued by African dress and adornment. By the 1920s, African forms inspired fashions and design on both continents, part of creative exchanges that continue to this day.