Loincloths in Africa: "These fabrics that speak and make people talk"

It's a story of the power of print. They are much less well-known than wax, but loincloths represent a whole part of Africa's history. The so-called "fancy" printing technique was used in factories in sub-Saharan Africa from the time of African independence. The exhibition "Fancy! Commemorative loincloths in Africa" at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris presents an overview of the last sixty years of these fabrics intended to be worn at public events. Interview with curator Sarah Ligner.

View of the exhibition "Fancy! Commemorative loincloths in Africa" at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

By: Siegfried Forster Follow

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RFI: Is loincloth an African specialty?

Sarah Ligner: Yes, commemorative loincloths are an African specialty. This garment, originally, is a fabric, a fabric printed according to the fancy print technique. And it is this technique that is honored in the exhibition as well as its particular history, its relationship to the African continent. Unlike wax, these fabrics are printed by factories located on the African continent, often on the occasion of events of a political nature, during electoral campaigns or during official visits by foreign heads of state. But it can also be during religious, cultural, sporting events, etc. There is a wide range of occasions involving the printing of these fabrics.

The loincloths on display here display personalities of all kinds: from Youssou N'Dour to Charles de Gaulle to John Paul II... And they also reflect ruptures, revolutions and developments in Africa, from colonization to independence. For example, there are loincloths on the "New division of the Democratic Republic of Congo", but also on the meeting between Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor and Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, or with the head of Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president of an African country... Is this the first exhibition dedicated to this subject?

This is the first exhibition in France on this subject. There are very few collections of commemorative loincloths. And we are able to present this exhibition thanks to the donation of Bernard Collet and his work over the last thirty years. This French photographer and enthusiast of this type of commemorative prints has assembled a collection of more than 800 loincloths and he has donated part of it to the Quai Branly museum.

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View of the exhibition "Fancy! Commemorative loincloths in Africa" at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

In Africa, the loincloth is primarily a women's garment and has also been used to promote feminist ideas. These loincloths recount historical events, but is there a loincloth that has made history?

Many of these loincloths are reflections, mirrors of history and we can read both the history of the continent, but also the impact of events that took place outside the continent. I am thinking, for example, of Barack Obama's election as President of the United States at the end of 2008 and his inauguration at the beginning of 2009. Several loincloths have been printed with his likeness in East Africa. These fabrics are kangas celebrating the accession of the first black man to the presidency of the United States.

Loincloths often turn out to be communication tools for the powerful. On the other hand, in a film by contemporary artist Kapwani Kiwanga, depicting a silent interaction between two women communicating using kangas, the phrase appears: "The kindness of the poor is not counted". Are there loincloths that were used for resistance or revolution in Africa?

In the kangas, we often find this moral dimension through the proverbs, the maxims that are summoned and printed on these fabrics talking about wisdom, the relationship between human beings, questions of poverty, wealth... Of course, these fabrics have an impact and some have now become "persona non grata". For example, wearing a loincloth bearing the image of Mobutu in the DRC today would be frowned upon.

View of the exhibition "Fancy! Commemorative loincloths in Africa" at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

Many factories have closed, does the loincloth belong to another era?

The golden age of these commemorative fabrics printed in fancy print is between the 1960s and 1990s. Many of these factories on the African continent have experienced economic difficulties in recent years and have found themselves facing foreign competition, especially some factories that have been bought by Chinese capital, but with lower quality loincloths that Africans have not necessarily adopted.

The loincloth is a clever mix of text, colour and fabric. Could it be said that it is somewhere between a poster and a flag?

Yes, they are spokesman's fabrics, talkative fabrics too, chatty through images and texts. They seduce us at first glance, with their decorative patterns, with their colors reminiscent of wax. They are often composed around an image, a photographic portrait, or the staging of a person accompanied by texts. All of this reinforces the power of print. These are fabrics that speak and make people talk. When you meet a person dressed in this cloth, it can be a way to start a dialogue and also show how to build community, how to share values and ideas claimed by a group of individuals.

Fancy! Commemorative loincloths in Africa, exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, until January 14, 2024.

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