Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 19, 2017
Duncan Clarke African Textiles: The Karun Thakar Collection New York: Prestel, 2015. 272 pp.; 230 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9783791381633)

Textiles are key to understanding the past. From sartorial practice to divisions of labor and patterns of trade, textiles serve as historical documents that often reveal as much about the people who produced and wore them as they do about those who collected, traded, copied, or admired them. African Textiles: The Karun Thakar Collection is a step toward documenting a significant private collection of textiles that shows potential for increasing our understanding of this important object of material and visual culture. The collector, Karun Thakar, provides an introduction to the book that offers some insight into his collecting practice while Bernhard Gardi, curator emeritus of the African Department at the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, provides a preface. The book is divided into three sections by geographic region: the first and by far the largest section is West Africa, which includes Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Sierra Leone; the second is Central Africa, covering Cameroon and Congo; and the third is North Africa, including Morocco and Tunisia. Duncan Clarke authors the texts for the first two sections, and Miriam Ali-de-Unzaga writes the third. The book is superbly illustrated with quality, color photographs of selected textiles from the collection accompanied by documentary photographs from throughout the twentieth century culled from various sources and often demonstrating in situ garments similar to those in the collection.

The text covers pieces representing the nine countries mentioned above, with an overwhelming presence of West African woven textiles. The dominance of strip-woven fabrics is a reminder of how the field has been and continues to be shaped by the individual tastes of collectors. Considering this dominance, however, the selection of Clarke as the author for the West African section was appropriate as he has written extensively on the topic of West African woven fabrics, particularly Yoruba aso oke, which was the focus of his dissertation. Clarke is also an avid collector and dealer of these textiles who advised Thakar on some of his acquisitions. Equally qualified on the subject of North African textiles, Ali-de-Unzaga holds a PhD from Oxford and has written numerous articles on the topic. Both authors present highly professional, clearly written, informative texts that, although dry at times, avoid the clichés so common to books of this genre that eulogize African textiles.

As the first part of the book’s title suggests, this study is essentially a survey of African textiles. The second part of the title, indicating that this is a survey based on the Thakar collection, is not provided on the front cover. The book adds to a series of works written on the Karun Thakar collection, joining titles such as John Guy and Rosemary Crill’s Indian Textiles: The Karun Thakar Collection (New York: Prestel, 2014), John Guy’s Indian Cotton Textiles: Seven Centuries of Chintz from the Karun Thakar Collection (Woodbridge, UK: ACC Art Books, 2015), and Karun Thakar and Anna Jackson’s Kimono Meisen: The Karun Thakar Collection (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2015). Although the vast quantity of objects in Thakar’s collection—numbering several thousand in the African part alone—makes managing the collection and narrowing down the selection for the publication a challenging task, I am a bit wary of the continued geographical categorization that obscures the interconnected web of textile production and trade that long preceded the formation of nation states in the twentieth century. Interestingly, in the first paragraph of his introduction, Thakar recalls his experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2013 exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 (click here for review), a show that brought together, many for the first time, textiles from various different departments in order to visually demonstrate the ancient connections between distant cultures and lands made possible by the expansive textile trade network. Indeed, Thakar goes on to mention links between some of the objects from the African collection and the global textile trade, such as a Fante flag made with imported fabrics from Europe and India. In Clarke’s chapter on Nigeria, a silk and cotton prestige cloth shows clear influence from checked Indian cottons. However, despite numerous examples like these that indicate a dialogue between foreign and local objects of material and visual culture, the narrative of exchange is overshadowed by categorizations according to nation and region.

Information about specific objects is best found in the captions of the unnumbered illustrations since both Clarke and Ali-de-Unzaga allude to objects in the collection but neither engage directly with examples. Instead, both authors stick to general overviews that touch upon production techniques, materials, trade, and the social and cultural contexts of the textiles’ use in lieu of analyses of individual pieces. The result is a sense of disconnect, not only between the texts and the images but also between the two authors. Clarke frequently mentions trade articles such as magenta silks brought by camel caravans across the Sahara to Asante and Ewe kente weavers, and production techniques, such as the use of the single-heddle ground loom used by Berber women in the north and by weavers throughout the west, that reveal connections between these distant regions. These links offer points at which the authors could have found common ground, rather than producing three distinct sections that separate production, as many texts have done before, along geographic and national lines. These designations are already set at the start when Gardi makes an initial, irksome differentiation between North Africa and the “sub-Saharan part,” the latter referring to Clarke’s contribution to the text. The term is not only geographically inaccurate (a large part of Mali is in the Sahara desert), but it is outdated and inappropriate.

Although several calls are made in the text for more research to be done on African textiles, Thakar explicitly states that the purpose of his book series and this latest edition is “not intended to directly challenge the prevailing view of the textile arts,” which are valued less than the visual arts (15). Rather, he wishes simply to introduce and share his passion for textiles with readers, especially if some of these readers are new to the subject. With this modest objective in mind, Thakar and the authors have presented a study that appears capable of conveying that passion and provides a solid introduction to the textile cultures of select African regions, countries, and people. For readers well versed in textile scholarship, there is not much here that they have not already encountered elsewhere. However, the illustrations are a delight to see and they are testament to the breadth of Thakar’s holdings, contended to be one of the leading collections of African textiles in the world. Many pieces are out of the ordinary and others are very rare; therefore, although the text itself does not provide the groundbreaking research the authors call for, it does highlight parts of a collection with great potential for future in-depth, object-based research.

Erin M. Rice
PhD candidate, Art History, Free University Berlin