African-Print Fashion Volume 41.2

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS  in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.  Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA .

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.

WOMAN WEARING DRESS printed with portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Union flags, black and white photograph, circa 1977. Photograph by Jacques Toussele, © Jacques Toussele.

In 2015 Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo expressed her affinity for African-print cloth, stating, “This is our cloth. Our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers have worn this cloth for too many years for it not to be ours.” Her passionate words suggest the fervor with which African-print cloth is linked to African identity as well as an awareness of its transnational history and present. Its story begins in the late nineteenth century, when the (mostly female) traders in what is now Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, encountered European merchants arriving with a new kind of fabric—vividly-patterned wax prints. These women, from communities that had for generations revered well-made textiles and appreciated imported goods, recognized the potential of the colorful wares and suggested to the merchants motifs and hues that would appeal to their customers.

One merchant in particular, Scotland’s Ebenezer Brown Fleming, who was working with a company in the Netherlands, listened to the feedback his agent received, and, around 1890, began offering printed cloths that—though manufactured by machines in Europe and inspired by handmade batik fabrics from Indonesia—became entirely African. Scholar Helen Elands states concisely that, “It was African interaction in design choices that enabled African aesthetics and cultural values to pervade these products, allowing them to carry connotations of tradition and authenticity.” Many contemporary fashion designers, both in Africa and the diaspora, continue to embrace African-print cloth, which is now manufactured in Europe, Africa and Asia, as a declaration of their connection to Africa. Though these fabrics are delicately entangled in the complexities of Colonialism, technology, consumerism, and style, they are, at heart, African and in innumerable ways, global. 

ALEXIS TEMOMANIN, DESIGNER FOR DENT DE MAN. LES TOILES D’ARAIGNÉE: MAN’S SUIT in wax print by Vlisco, the Netherlands, 2016. Courtesy of Dent de Man, London, UK. Photograph by Marc Hibbert.

Several recent exhibitions have focused on African design and fashion, including “Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design” organized by the Vitra Design Museum in 2015-2019; “South of the Sahara: Accelerated Urbanism in Africa” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2016; “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2016-2017; and “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” in 2017-2019. This last exhibition, conceived by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2014 just before an explosion in popularity of African-print fashion, focused on the cloth and fashion of West and Central Africa, addressing their history and contemporary iterations while conveying the multifaceted networks of international trade that shaped them and the intricate expressions of identity that they embody. Its lavishly illustrated catalogue, with essays by numerous scholars, including the four co-curators: Suzanne Gott, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine, stands as a permanent record of a dazzling exhibition.

The terminology used to describe and the technology used to create African-print cloth vary between countries and over time. In the standard hierarchy of African prints, though, “wax prints” generally are the most desirable and are produced with a resist-dye process employing engraved metal rollers that results in fabric printed on both sides and showing characteristic undyed areas of crackles and bubbles; additional layers of color are applied through a variety of methods. “Fancy prints” are printed on one side of the fabric through numerous methods, but do not use the resist-dye process, while “imi-wax prints,” or imitation wax prints, are a kind of fancy print designed to imitate the effect of the resist-dye process. All of these boldly-patterned and brightly-colored fabrics are considered African prints.

MEMBERS OF A GROUP wearing the classic God’s Eye pattern for the Cape Coast Fetu Afahye Festival, Ghana, 2012. Photograph by Betsy D. Quick.

The motifs on African-print cloth range from alphabets to handbags, iPods to chickens, radiating spirals to elaborate hair braid styles. Some early designs derive from Indonesian images, like Tree of Life or Bunch of Bananas (also called Shell), which initially represented the wing of the legendary Garuda bird of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. Others reflect patterns from traditional African textiles, such as Sun Ray or Target, a design based on tie-dyed fabrics, or Angelina, also called Dashiki and based on Ethiopian tunics with embroidered neck yokes and borders. Especially popular motifs include a hand with coins, a human eye, and fingers, and these often relate to familiar proverbs like “The palm of the hand is sweeter than the back of the hand,” and “I am left with only my eyes to watch you.” Some designs reflect significant current events, like Ghana’s independence from colonial rule on March 6, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the visit of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009, or International Women’s Day. Others are produced for specific occasions such as weddings or funerals.

IN A VILLAGE NEAR BROBO, CÔTE D’IVOIRE, an unidentified woman wears a wax-print featuring the distinctive skyline of Abidjan, 1992. The three-piece complet, made from six meters of printed cloth, is considered by many to be traditional Ivorian dress and is associated with propriety, discretion, moral fortitude, and a high regard for tradition. Photograph by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Though the earliest African-print cloth was manufactured in Europe, companies began producing prints in Africa during the independence era (late 1950s-1970s), and by the early twenty-first century, countries in Asia, especially China, made their own versions of African-print cloth. In many African countries the “original” wax prints from the Netherlands are revered as the most prestigious, while at times the pride of local manufacture has taken precedent. The purchasing power of Africans declined radically following the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the late 1980s and 1990s, creating an opening for less costly products from Asia. The recent influx of inexpensive Asian imports has both strengthened devotion to higher-end products and spurred popular interest in and use of African-print cloths as it has made them more accessible. Anthropologist Nina Silvanus describes the cloth as “full of irony,” and “a true hybrid—at once Javanese, Dutch, English, African, and now increasingly Chinese,” adding, “the archive of wax cloth complicates claims about origin, originality, and authenticity.”

Regardless of where the cloths are printed, they acquire their names in Africa. In her essay, Kathleen Bickford Berzock explains that “the long-standing practice of the naming of wax-print patterns by the consumers who purchase, wear, and collect them is part of its enculturation into local frames of meaning and value,” adding that the popularity of a print increases once it receives a name. 

A cloth’s name, motif or related proverb speaks clearly to its wearer’s peers. One popular print for mothers, midwifes, or women desiring children is Children are Better than Money, while a particular fancy print from the early 1990s incorporates the proverb En attendant mon grotto (“Waiting for my grotto”—an Ivorian slang term similar to “sugar daddy”) below an image with a young woman pointing to the desirable possessions of a Mercedes-Benz and a single-family home, against a pattern of coins. 

Berzock quotes folklorist Susan Domowitz on how, among the communities she studied in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, prints based on proverbs sometimes offered “an acceptable public voice to those who are constrained to silence.” 

KEN TRAORÉ, DESIGNER. KENYA’S STYLE: Pagne et marinière of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.

African fashion was, and in many places still is, primarily custom rather than ready-to-wear, and Suzanne Gott, in one of her contributions to the catalogue, describes the process as “an ever-changing, grassroots phenomenon.” The first, and most crucial step, is for the woman to select the cloth. The woman then takes her special fabric to a seamstress or tailor to be made into a traditional form, like the ntoma (the equivalent of “cloth”) ensemble in Ghana with a sewn blouse, wrapper or sewn skirt, and an unsewn cloth (an outfit typically requiring six yards of cloth) or the taille basse in Senegal (a fitted top with a peplum worn over a wrapper), or into something contemporary. Examples of these garments featured in the African-Print Fashion Now! catalogue include Senegalese designer Ken Traoré’s taille basse and head scarf from 2016 in bright yellow with orange flowers and olive-colored leaves, and Ivorian designer/seamstress Delphine Kouassi’s trois-pagnes (the Ivorian national dress) in a brilliant print of greens, turquoise and brown with sparkling metallic trim edging the ruffles—the sparkles surprised Saundra Lang, who commissioned this as a daytime dress, but when she expressed that, Koaussi replied, “This is how we dress in the daytime!”

Portraits from the 1960s and 1970s—described as “West and Central Africa’s ‘golden age’ of black and white photography”—emphasize the role these fabrics and garments have played in communicating identity, status, wealth, style, and ideas. Images by Francis K. Honny, working in coastal urban Ghana, show relatives posed in formal settings wearing matching prints to visually emphasize their familial ties, while ones by Mory Bamba, an itinerant photographer from Mali, depict young subjects outdoors in elaborate, chic ensembles. The photographs give faces, emotions, settings, and accessories to the African prints, and bear witness to the Ghanian proverb, “A beautiful cloth does not wear itself.”

BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS: Portrait of man and woman by Francis K. Honny, Elmina, Ghana, circa 1975. Courtesy of Tobias Wendl. Portrait of young Peulh women and men by Mory Bamba, Sikasso region of southeastern Mali, circa 1978. Courtesy of Adama Bamba, © Mory Bamba. Portrait of woman and child by Jacques Toussele, 1970s. © Jacques Toussele. Photography spread quickly in the 1960s and 1970s with people in rural villages inviting traveling photographers to their communities to take their pictures.

One of the key manufacturers of African-print cloth is Vlisco, which formed in 1970 with the merger of two much older Dutch companies, P. F. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co. and Deventer Katoen Maatschappij voorheen Ankersmit & Co. (DKM). In 2006, Vlisco changed its approach from “a production-focused to a brand-driven fashion textile manufacturer,” and through its dynamic advertising campaigns, established itself as a significant fashion force. Vlisco created numerous outstanding garments considered “communication fashion,” described in the catalogue as “one-of-a-kind outfits created solely to ‘inspire’ Vlisco’s targeted consumers—well-educated elite and upper middle-class African women.” A 2013 example of this type of garment is a dress ensemble, in red, yellow and green, by Dutch designer Inge van Lierop (who was looking to nineteenth-century tailoring for inspiration), which features a fitted, long-sleeve top with a high collar and puffed shoulders of one pattern and an extravagantly voluminous skirt of a second pattern depicting traditional icons of African-print design, like fans, hands with coins and Bunch of Bananas, on pedestals—regally celebrating the cyclical nature of African-print fashion.

Today many African fashion designers, regardless of whether they are trained and based in Africa or the diaspora, embrace African-print fashion, according to Kristyne S. Loughran, who notes that, “Its aesthetic creates a direct and immediate visual link to Africa.” Lisa Folawiyo created a short dress in 2016 that combines two prints with detailed hand-embellishment—small beads sewn on the wedge of leaf-patterned fabric in the skirt and in the white dots above the waist, while Ituen Bassey, an award-winning designer from Nigeria who is partly based in London, designed a short dress in 2009 with glowing rainbow bands of African-print cloth that reference a tradition of patchwork. A standout example of this transnational connection is a dress designed by a teenager in New Jersey in 2015 to wear to prom; Kyemah McEntyre captured the attention of social media with her long-sleeved, décolletage, full-skirted gown of the Angelina pattern, quickly becoming a fashion sensation and sparking a vogue for African-print prom dresses.

BÉATRICE MANOVAN, DESIGNER. DRESS, Abidjan, 2016. SALOME LENANA wears a two-piece West African-style taille basse outfit, locally made in Nairobi, Kenya, 1994. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine. NICOLE AMIEN, DESIGNER. TWO-PIECE ENSEMBLE, wax print, Uniwax, Côte d’Ivoire, 2016.

WALÉ OYÉJIDÉ, DESIGNER FOR IKIRÉ JONES. MAN’S JACKET, trousers and scarf of African-print cloth, Untold Renaissance collection, 2014.

Alex Temomanin, from Côte d’Ivoire, who established his Dent de Man brand in London, handpicks each print used in his garments based on its emotional resonance to his own experiences and its universal storytelling capacity. His trimly tailored man’s suit of a Vlisco spiderweb print, Les Toiles D’araignée conveys how as a teenager he felt trapped in a web—trying to figure out his identity, dealing with the fragility of poverty—and how he found comfort in fabrics, which were often his only toys as a child.

A man’s black-tie ensemble, designed by Nigerian-born Walé Oyéjidé for Ikiré Jones, the Philadelphia-based label he established with his partner Sam Hubler in 2013, features a red-printed jacket, black pants and a silk scarf. The scarf, from the Untold Renaissance collection, depicts an African man in eighteenth-century European garb against a collage of conventional European imagery. The textile raises issues related to immigration and, according to the label’s website, “the absence of persons of color in Medieval and Renaissance-era European art,” while relying on “the sampling method used in hip hop culture.” (A related Ikiré Jones scarf appeared in the recent blockbuster movie and fashion tour-de-force Black Panther.)

Diablos (Maguette Traore), a graffiti artist and designer from Senegal, explains, “I use African elements, like le wax. You just have to delve into your parental values, your ancestral values,” and Leslie W. Rabine writes that, “like other Dakar streetwear designers, he makes African print a deeply symbolic component of Senegalese hip-hop.” One of his outfits comprises a handpainted T-shirt with shrimp-printed chaya (traditional baggy, low-crotched pants).

DEEP DAKART, DESIGNER FOR MIZÉRABLES GRAFFF. HOODIE AND T-SHIRT of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.


In this increasingly interconnected world, African-print fashion is an appropriate rallying point for African cultural identity. The catalogue for African-Print Fashion Now!, as did the recent exhibition, allows room for and even celebrates the complexity of its subject. The project brought together work by award-winning couturiers, unidentified seamstresses and many young designers, augmenting it with selections of accessories wrapped in prints, photography and contemporary art to convey the range of production and the cultural permeation of African-print cloth. Hassan Hajjaj’s stunning Afrikan Boy from 2012, a large photograph in a frame of sardine tins, combines art with fashion, showing a well-dressed man with an umbrella and a myriad of patterns. Essayist Hansi Momodu-Gordon writes of “the empowered individuality of [Hajjaj’s] subjects, who are not bound by singular definitions but appear as citizens of a global exchange of ideas,” words that could apply to all who wear African-print fashion.

 
 

HASSAN HAJJAJ. Afrikan Boy, 2012, My Rock Stars Volume 2 series; Metallic Lambda print on 3mm Dibond in wood frame with Geisha maquereau tins, 136 x 93 centimeters. Private Collection.

 
 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The quotations cited are drawn from essays written for the catalogue African Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style.

SUGGESTED READING
Gott, Suzanne, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine.
African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017. 
African-Print Fashion Now! Videos from the Fowler Museum: https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/african-print-fashion-now

“African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” showed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 7, 2018 - April 28, 2019; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, February 24 - August 12, 2018; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, March 26 - July 30, 2017.

 

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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts and craft. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York, and Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens. In 2015, the University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion. This issue, she writes about the use of Dutch Vlisco wax print fabrics by African designers, in an article entitled “African-Print Fashion: Transnational Flair.”

Bhagwan Das Soni Volume 39.5

AMULET NECKLACE (haar) of silver, glass, paper, and paint worn by Hindus. WRIST BRACELET of silver worn by Rabari tribes of Gujarat. AMULET (sikka) of silver, pearls, turquoise, coins, and carnelian. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

We live on a planet where the global neighborhood has broadened, with once great distances being traversed daily. The land and sea between continents are not the barriers they once were, even for those who live in small towns and villages. Worlds that were once far apart may meet, as is the case with Rajasthani goldsmith, Bhagwan Das Soni, or B.D. as he is more well known, who graced the Fowler Museum at the University of Los Angeles with his presence and wares one mildly overcast afternoon this past May. At a one-day trunk show featuring his work, exactly eight thousand, one hundred and seventy six miles away from the city in which he resides, people who might never have met had a chance to share in their passion for jewelry, culture and the handmade, face to face.

      Coinciding with the Fowler Museum’s exhibition on East Indian jewelry, “Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert,” this event brought to the West Coast one of the four Rajasthani jewelers whose work, and livelihood, was researched for the exhibit. In 2002, Bhagwan Das was one of two Indian goldsmiths invited to the Smithsonian Silk Road Festival in Washington, D.C., a show he has since used to make engagements and pursue connections in the United States. On the second floor of the museum, in a small room perhaps used for meetings, a literal treasure trove spilled out over several tables. Jewelry from all over India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan mingled with more contemporary work made by B.D.’s family. A stream of visitors, both ardent collectors and those simply looking to add a little flash to their wardrobe, wandered from display to display, occasionally asking a question regarding material, origin or technique that he unhesitatingly fielded. It was as if the contents of a jeweler’s store in India had been transported to a foreign land and set out as a sumptuous repast.

The history of B.D.’s family in goldsmithing goes back nine generations, an unbroken line of tradition tying past to present. His father, Govindlal, worked for the Maharajah of Jaisalmer, as did his father, Inderchand. The Inderchand family originally heralded from Sind, a migration that dates back roughly eight generations. Govindlal himself had seven daughters and four sons, all of whom are either married to, or are, sonis; both the family name, caste and tradition, sonis are jewelers who work in gold, although they can also make objects from silver, brass, bronze, and copper. Part of the Soni caste of jewelers in the Thar desert region, Soni is a popular surname for goldsmiths in Rajasthan—thus Bhagwan Das Soni’s name is both occupation and title.

BHAGWAN DAS SONI AND KATHY DIGENOVA, Museum Store Manager at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

      B.D’s beginning as a goldsmith can be traced to childhood, when at the age of twelve he would carry his father’s tools to the workshop and sit with him, watching the master at work. It was through careful observation that B.D. learned his father’s craft. Once he felt his son had absorbed enough lessons, his father let him play with the least expensive of materials, copper, with which he fabricated simple rings and earrings. Slowly but surely, more valuable materials were supplied, silver, and then gold. A brief interlude took place as his father pushed him to work for the government. “When I was seventeen years old, my father encouraged me to become a civil servant because he thought my financial future would be more secure,” B.D. remembers. “I tried it for nearly one year before resigning. I didn’t like the work and wanted to return to making jewelry.” By the age of twenty, he had become an expert in granulation, and at that point began to work independently. He established his own shop, and has now built up their operation to the point where his sons are largely responsible for producing the jewelry. 

The making and selling of jewelry is a family affair. “Every adult member of my family is involved one way or another in the family jewelrymaking enterprise,” B.D. explains. “Each of my brothers makes jewelry and sells it through his own shop. I especially enjoy designing jewelry. Two of my sons make jewelry and sell it through my haveli.” Somewhat like a cross between a mansion and a Spanish hacienda, havelis have a similar sense of gravity, and in Bhagwan Das’s case, is used as a gallery and storefront. His third son Yogesh, who traveled to Ahmadabad to apprentice, also studied business administration, a valuable skill for managing the extended network of family shops. He is involved in the sale of their jewelry. “We all learn from, and support, each other,” B.D. says. “Everyone in my family is proud of being part of a multi-generational goldsmithing tradition.” 

 

This tradition is something shared between the contemporary American art jeweler and a soni, a love for the care invested in making an object, and of the knowledge needed to do so. “Creative people everywhere take great pride and pleasure in making something of beauty with their own hands,” he remarks. “In my opinion, there is no comparison between a one-of-a-kind, handmade object and something mass produced by machine. If goldsmith families don’t continue to make jewelry by hand, the techniques and skills required to make it will be lost.”

In a city steeped in tradition as Jaisalmer those techniques and skills are well alive. Bhagwan Das Soni’s presence in an American museum was a reminder of the different worlds of creativity that inhabit our planet, separated by distance yet sharing that same appreciation for a life lived with care and a respect for the beautiful.

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. This year saw him visiting New York for the veritable deluge of fashion shows on display during this past spring, such as “Black Fashion Designers” in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After observing the parade of garments and ensembles made over several decades, he comments, “You learn that some of the seminal styles of the twentieth century were pioneered by African-Americans. The slinky, silky jumpsuit that filled the discotheques of the 1970s? That is called the sizzler, and it was made by James Daugherty.” Back on the West Coast, it was his pleasure to meet Bhagwan Das Soni and cover the trunk show of his jewelry at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

JOLI! Sierra Leone Headdresses Volume 39.3

JOLI! A Fancy Masquerade From Sierra Leone

The Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, is extremely fortunate to have a rare group of eleven Joli headdresses from Sierra Leone, which are on view in the museum’s Focus Gallery through July 16, 2017. Joli headdresses are among the most complex and elaborately configured masquerade structures we know from sub-Saharan Africa, and the Joli masquerade was performed only in the port city of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, during the 1970s.

      Following Sierra Leone’s independence, achieved in 1961 after over one hundred fifty years of British colonial rule, a wave of young migrants from the countryside—mostly members of the Temne ethnic group—moved to Freetown in hopes of finding greater opportunities and a better future. This gave rise to socioeconomic concerns about how best to integrate this influx of newly arrived young people into the city. Charitable organizations in Freetown—among them the Zorrow Unity Society and the Young Men’s Muslim Association (YMMA)—offered them food and shelter. These organizations also sponsored a variety of guided activities to help them adjust to urban life.

MASQUERADE HEADDRESS of wood, pigment, wire, fabric, fringe, braid, polyurethane foam, metal, 58.4 x 55.9 x 68.6 centimeters, Freetown, Sierra Leone, circa 1970s. Images courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

      Notable among these efforts was the sponsorship of masquerades. Zorrow Unity and YMMA formed the Joli Society to produce a citywide parade festival to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, as well as other festive occasions. Members of the society were tasked with helping to create the spectacular headdresses that they would wear during these occasions. The word “fancy,” used to describe the events, seems to have come from its appearance in advertisements for yardage in local newspapers, as ornate brocades, damask, lace, and fringe were key materials used to create Joli headdresses. The term may also have entered the lexicon because “fancy costumes” were worn at balls during the British colonial era.

Deeper antecedents of the Joli masquerade may reside in a lantern festival celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that seems to have originated in the 1930s and may have been inspired by a Gambian festival celebrating the Christmas season. Over time, the handheld lanterns morphed into large motorized floats constructed with bent and twisted wire, bamboo and wood. These wire frameworks were covered with layers of fabric and paper. In the 1970s Joli headdresses were made using the same materials and techniques and adopted many of the themes that had been used in the floats, becoming a sort of portable equivalent. The elusive water spirit Mami Wata, who represents beauty and fertility, was frequently represented on headdresses. She often wears an elaborate crown, which may represent her own power or be a holdover from British royal iconography. A rampant lion and unicorn, symbols of the British crown, are also commonly featured on Joli headdresses. As Sierra Leone was and still is predominantly Muslim, it is not surprising that superstructures also portray mosques or Al-Buraq, the magical horse with a human face who carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and back. Elephants, biplanes and other fanciful imagery are also common.

X-RAY OF MASQUERADE HEADDRESS shown above depicting the structural engineering of the object primarily using wires of different gauges. CT scan and X-Ray made possible with the cooperation of the UCLA Radiology Department, Translational Research Imaging Center.    

      Joli headdresses were produced in several stages, each undertaken by individuals with different skills. During the course of exhibition preparation and research, the Fowler arranged with the UCLA Radiology Department, Translational Research Imaging Center, to have one of its headdresses examined using Computed Tomography (CT), which employs computer-processed combinations of many X-ray images taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional images, allowing the viewer to see inside an object without cutting or dismantling.

As the CT scan reveals, the first and innermost layer provided the headdress’s structural foundation or armature and was made from bent and twisted wire of different gauges. A second layer was composed primarily of polyurethane padding, which was in turn overlaid with a wide array of materials: cloth printed with floral motifs or animal prints, gingham, shimmering brocades, lush velvets, beaded veils, and embellishments including Christmas tinsel, garlands, plastic flowers, cowrie shells, fringes, rickrack, lace, and mirrors.

One or more wooden masks were attached to the fancy superstructure, giving a face to the Joli headdress. The coiffures of these carved wooden masks were painted a high-luster black, which helped to reflect the light, and the use of pink, violet, red, and other vibrant colors to paint their faces is evocative of masking traditions of southeastern Nigeria, especially those of the Ibibio peoples. The entire headdress was worn on top of the head. The Joli masquerade performer completed the ensemble with a full-body costume made of printed cloth, with white gloves and knee-high white socks to cover his hands and feet.

MASQUERADE HEADDRESS of wood, pigment, wire, fabric, tinsel, fringe, ribbon, metal, 91.5 x 68.6 x 55.8 centimeters, Freetown, Sierra Leone, circa 1970s. MASQUERADE HEADDRESS of wood, pigment, wire, fabric, tinsel mirrors, fringe, ribbon, metal, 64.7 x 53.3 x 16.73 centimeters, Freetown, Sierra Leone, circa 1970s. MASQUERADE HEADDRESS of wood, pigment, wire, fabric, tinsel, fringe, ribbon, metal, 91.5 x 68.6 x 55.8 centimeters, Freetown, Sierra Leone, circa 1970s.

 

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Gassia Armenian is Curatorial and Research Associate and Editorial Assistant at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she conducts collections and database research to facilitate curatorial and scholarly endeavors and manages various aspects of planning and organizing museum exhibitions. Prior to her work at the Fowler Museum, Armenian was a Consultant-Project Coordinator at the US Agency for International Development—for Junior Achievement of Armenia where she developed and implemented civics-education training programs and teaching methodologies for principals and teachers from the Republic of Armenia in the United States and in Armenia. In this issue, she writes about the Fowler’s exhibition on Sierra Leone headdresses.