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The William Morris Gallery presents Social Fabric: African Textiles Today

A new exhibition at Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery promises to uncover the links between the textiles of eastern and southern Africa and life in the region.

Social Fabric: African Textiles Today, which opens on 20 February, was developed in partnership with the British Museum and explores how the printed and factory-woven textiles of eastern and southern Africa mirror the changing times, fashions and tastes in this part of the world.

The exhibition brings together textiles from the British Museum’s collection, including kanga from Kenya and Tanzania and shweshwe from southern Africa, to reveal how these fabrics express the social, political, religious, emotional and even sexual concerns of the people who wear them.

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design. They are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment though they are sometimes worn by men. Shweshwe is a printed indigo cloth from South Africa, typically used for ceremonial clothing.

The varied patterns and Swahili inscriptions on kanga are thought provoking and sometimes humorous. They convey thoughts and feelings which cannot always be articulated out loud. For example one from Tanzania is inscribed with the statement ‘I may be quiet but there’s a lot in my heart’. 

Worn in both secular and sacred contexts, the fabric plays a central role in major rite-of-passage ceremonies in women’s, and in some cases, men’s lives. Their bright colours and ability to communicate messages have even been used for political purposes, such as one with the inscription ‘I have no secrets’ commissioned by Najib Balata, a political hopeful in Mombasa, Kenya. Other designs celebrate influential leaders such as Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.

African textiles are a constant source of inspiration for artists too. Lawrence Lemaoana uses kanga to highlight political corruption and the threat to freedom of speech in post-Apartheid South Africa by stitching the words of both Malcolm X and African National Congress leaders onto the cloth. Kanga also feature in the collections of London fashion label CHiCHia. Chief Designer, Tanzanian-born Christine Mhando modernises and transforms these traditional East African textiles into stylish and contemporary fashionable attire.

Curator at the Council-run Gallery in Forest Road, Rowan Bain, said: “William Morris understood the importance of textiles to political and cultural life. Through his designs and revival of traditional craft practice, he wanted to reform the decorative arts and bring about social change. It is therefore fitting that this exhibition of African textiles from the British Museum’s collection be shown at the William Morris Gallery, encouraging visitors to explore how textiles communicate ideas and values.”

Notes to editors

Social Fabric: African Textiles Today

20 February-29 May 2016

William Morris Gallery

Forest Road, London E17 4PP

Wednesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm; admission free

Social Fabric: African Textiles Today is a touring exhibition as part of the British Museum’s national programmes. The British Museum’s national programmes are generously funded by the Dorset Foundation.

For further information please contact Ian Mason:

Tel: 020 8496 4726

Mob: 07740 046143


About the William Morris Gallery

The William Morris Gallery is the only public Gallery devoted to William Morris: designer, craftsman and radical socialist. Housed in the grade II* listed building that was Morris's family home from 1848 to 1856, the Gallery reopened in August 2012 following a major redevelopment that attracted widespread public and press acclaim.

Since its relaunch the Gallery has developed an ambitious contemporary programme, hosting Morris-inspired exhibitions by artists including Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller, Yinka Shonibare and Bob and Roberta Smith.

The Gallery, which is owned and run by Waltham Forest Council, was awarded the Art Fund prize for Museum of the Year in 2013 and was nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award in 2014.

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