- Long Live the President! Portrait-Cloths from Africa
Long Live The President! Portrait-Cloths from Africa was created as a catalogue for the exhibit, Long Live the President!, which was on display from 1 April to 22 August, 2010, at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The author, Paul Faber, is the senior curator of the museum’s ethnographic collection from Africa.
The purposes of this exhibit were threefold: to build on a similar exhibit by Anne Spencer (In Praise of Heroes), which appeared at the Newark Museum in 1982; to highlight a topic important to many African cultures that is not widely known outside of Africa; and to celebrate one of the world’s best collections of printed cotton fabrics from Africa, augmented by loans from M. Bernard Collet (a private collector), and the Vlisco factory museum (a Dutch company with a long and distinguished history of producing “wax” prints for the African market). Most of the book is taken up by archival photographs and sixty highly detailed, full-color plates. This is just a sampling from the exhibit, which included more than one hundred fabrics and garments made of printed cotton cloth from all over Africa.
These fabrics—which should be inspiring to anyone interested in the dress and/or politics of Africa—includes images of well-known and not-so-well- known figures, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Julius Nyerere, Mobuto Sese Seko, Nelson Mandela, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and even Western figures, such as Pope John Paul II, Jacques Chirac, and Barack Obama. There are images of presidents’ wives and a tribute to the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson. Almost all the fabrics were produced in Europe or Africa within the last fifty years. The dates and places of production— which sometimes differ from the place of usage—have been carefully documented; this adds a great deal of value for scholars and collectors. A comparison of images to the catalogue for In Praise of Heroes shows very little overlap; the breadth and quality of this collection is clearly outstanding. Archival photographs—such as an image of Mobutu wearing his own portrait cloth—are fascinating to see and have not been widely accessible until now. A full page of photographs showing the interior of the Utex factory in Kinshasa is valuable, not just because the factory is now Chinese-owned, but because obtaining photographs of textile factories while production is ongoing is so difficult.
Unfortunately, the text of this catalogue is disappointing in comparison, especially since it contributes little to existing knowledge. In just seventeen pages, it covers the history of printed cloth, portraiture, and politics on the whole African continent. This is a vast subject, one that deserves much greater or in-depth attention. In fact, most of the text focuses on the production and distribution of commemorative cloth, while the wearers’ perspective is left to speculation. An example from In Praise of Heroes demonstrates what has been left out. Based on her own experience in Tanzania and on the research of her colleagues in other countries, Anne Spencer noted [End Page 107] how African consumers tend to treat commemorative cloth in different ways, depending on their level of respect for the person depicted. Fabrics showing a popular figure, such as Patrice Lumumba, might be carefully saved for decades, and even reproduced in other countries. Fabrics with unpopular figures, such as Mobutu or Bokassa, might be worn in a subversive way by sitting on the person’s face or cutting it in half on a garment. Although the Tropenmuseum’s exhibit included several garments, this aspect of garment design was barely considered. Long Live the President! does make an important observation about the shift from “big-man politics” to multiparty, democratic elections (and the role of cloth as a tool of education and propaganda), but there is not enough space to give these topics any kind of serious study.
For the purposes of scholarship, it would have been better if this catalogue, and perhaps the exhibit, had focused...