Yes, but what does your dress really say?

Shweshwe is a long way from its home

Africa is in fashion, it’s the flavour of the month. Couturiers celebrating ‘ethnic prints’ and ‘tribal chic’. Suddenly, it’s OK to cash in on our heritage. But it’s hard to ignore the fragile line that exists between appropriation and appreciation. It’s a blurry one, unsteady with emotions.

All of a Sunday, it’s cool to be Afrikan

Poet Allison-Claire Hoskins’ voice carries across the crowded room.

Lupita! has become our black Madonna
they have crucified your sons and daughters and have sold them to the highest bidder- Capitalism
but you forget that all ‘isms’ are poison to the mind
but the masses don’t mind
why? cause all of a sunday it’s cool to be Afrikan
Afrikan print shirts
Afrikan print shoes
Afrikan print socks
Afrikan print pillows
Afrikan print panties!

but all those afrikan prints have still not imprinted on your western minds but the masses don’t mind
why? cause all of a sunday it’s cool to be African.

African Textiles13

A collection of Capetonians met last Thursday in an event organised by the African Arts Institute, African Textiles and the Stories that they Tell. A small crowd gathered in the African Image Store, surrounded by sculptures, textiles and jewellery.

“Tonight is about discussing African texts, and seeing textiles as texts within this contemporary setting”, explains Katlego Shoro, project manager at the African Arts Institute. “We need to think about African textiles and what they mean to us in terms of our own histories”.

Debating whether it is problematic to appropriate African textiles, the discussion focuses on authenticity and respect. The diversity of our stories is impressive even in this small gathering of 30 people. Our textiles cannot tell a single history. Our histories are personal and particular.

African Textiles11But we all know a colourful piece of cloth is way more than the sum of its thread. The discussion unpicks the threads of meaning. Textiles in Africa need to be understood contextually. When we acknowledge textile as text, an important discourse starts unfolding. ‘Cultural imperialism’ and ‘appropriation’ are buzzwords that heat up the debate with the same fire that ‘tribal’ lends to fashion.

And then to add to the delightful complexity we look at the histories of the fabrics we’re scrutinising? Like the people, textiles in Africa cannot disengage from colonialism. And then we question the ‘Africanness’ of the modern mixtures. The beloved Shweshwe, that distinctive printed cloth with the fine geometric design, originated in Asia. It became entrenched in South African culture only after its production moved to Germany in the 19th Century.

“I have more Shweshwe in my closet than denim… I have always considered this love to be an aesthetic appreciation… but could I be accused of exploiting or fetishising cultures that I have no right to?” asks theatre designer Merryn Carver. “I will not knowingly make a flippant fashion statement with somebody else’s sacred symbol…but is textiles one such symbol?”

African Textiles12

There is sometimes outrage when retailers advertise items inspired by (but not overtly accrediting) different cultures. Fashion has no copyright laws, but strict trademark laws. One can copy a design, but can’t mis-label a product. So, it is irresponsible and disrespectful to omit contextual information about an item for sale, yet it is not unlawful.

Greer Valley, a founder of Kushn – known for their finely crafted mixture of leather and textiles – runs her business with fabric from West Africa. The design combines tradition and technology.

“Everyone loves ‘tribal’ prints at the moment, but the term is so problematic”, she says. Things get difficult to navigate when traditions start becoming trends. Words like ‘tribal’, ‘African influences’, ‘safari’, ‘exotic’, ‘warrior’ and ‘ethnic’ are popular in current European and American fashion speak, but become offensive when the outcome is fetishism.

I hope that it is not misguided to believe that some forms of appropriation can be appropriate, because a prescriptive dress code of cultural sensitivity can’t possibly be the answer. Just as the cloth I choose has a history, so do I.

African Textiles And The Stories They Tell was organised by the African Arts Institute in collaboration with ‘Journey into African Literature’, Palesa Motsumi from Sematsatsa Library, Kushn and Sibabalwa Ndlwana. Performance by Allison-Claire Hoskins from the InZync Poetry Collective.