Museum of African Art, Belgrade
The objective of the project carried out at the Museum of African Art was to explore and produce new forms of heritage interpretation pertaining to colourful industrial textiles called khanga and kitenge, which are widely used on the African continent: the khanga cloth is a staple piece of clothing in Eastern Africa, while the kitenge (African/wax print, wax hollandaise) is in wide-spread use in various regions of sub-Saharan Africa. These textiles represent a very important aspect of everyday material culture, thus they are topical in the study and museological presentations of creative contemporary African practices, material and popular culture.
The project was conceived so as to engage the local African community in Belgrade, not only in terms of visibility within the society, but also in order to give these Africans a voice in the public sphere – to provide an opportunity for them to give authentic interpretations of their own cultural practices. The interpretation of the khanga and kitenge textiles – how they are used and what they signify culturally – took form of in-depth interviews with several African informants. The interviews were recorded on video. Prior research on the topic and preparatory interviews (recorded as audio documents) were conducted with informants from Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria. In addition to the interview sessions, demonstrations of certain head-wrapping styles, and body-wraps fashioned out of the cloths, given by the informants were also filmed. The project was carried out by the Museum’s textile collection curator – senior curator Aleksandra Prodanović Bojović.
The interpretation of contemporary African textiles also brought attention to the necessity of rethinking and modernizing the Museum’s textile collection with contemporary textile production – pieces of khanga and kitenge cloths, in order to provide textile samples for reflection, research and cultural interpretation. The enhancement of the textile collection with relevant pieces of fabric was achieved by the acquisition of 25 khanga and 13 kitenge cloths. The purchased khanga and kitenge cloths provided background scenography for the interview set. Khanga cloths typically feature inscriptions in Swahili, which were interpreted by the interviewees, who also used the fabrics to demonstrate how they are typically worn in their culture, as garments or head-wraps.
The objectives of the project were the following:
- applying new forms of heritage interpretation (recording testimonies of African informants who are members of the source culture), and creating materials (textile acquisitions, video interviews, audio and photo materials) for future exhibitions, lectures and workshops on textiles;
- benefiting from previous museum collaborations to develop a qualitatively new project and to further broaden the network of African associates as well as seek out other potential partners
- involving African informants/associates as representatives of the native culture in its the interpretation, and engaging them in a museum project.
Aside from meeting these objectives, the Museum of African Art benefited from the project by gaining first-hand interpretation of museum objects and related cultural phenomena, provided by informants belonging to the culture in question.
As for the African participants, in addition to being given a platform to voice their views and share their knowledge of their culture, they were also given agency as consultants for the selection and purchase of textiles. They benefited from the project by gaining experience in on-screen speaking / public presentations in the course of the interview recordings, and in talking about traits of their culture to foreigners.
The long-term benefits of the Khanga and Kitenge Textiles Interpretation project are numerous. A conscious effort was made to expand the network of African associates. In the course of the project, we have also formed a contact with an African cultural organisation in Belgrade (SiVision – Student International Vision), a Serbian clothing designer with significant ties to South Africa, as well as a clothing retailer/distributor that collaborates with other Serbian clothing designers. We expect that this network of associates will continue to grow in the future by including them or partnering with them in projects such as this one. It is also important to point out that this project represents a part of a larger Museum project involving collection management – the modernization/expansion of the existing textile collection, and heritage interpretation relating to future museum programs and presentations on the topic of contemporary dress in Africa. The video-documented interviews and clothing demonstrations will be used as research documentation for further study by museum experts, which will be made available to other researchers, as well. Segments of the interviews will be used as documentary material at future exhibitions, lectures and presentations on textiles. The video demonstrations will be used as promos for future African head-wrapping workshops. The workshops will be offered to various target groups (cancer survivors, textiles students etc.), thus including and attracting new types of museum visitors. The purchased textiles will be displayed in future exhibitions including African textiles and contemporary clothing.
Aleksandra Prodanović Bojović, senior curator (Museum of African Art)