- Joanne Bubolz EicherTrailblazer in the Field of African Textiles, Dress, and Fashion
Aso ni èdidi èniyàn, "cloth is what binds people."(Yoruba proverb)
I first met Joanne Bubolz Eicher in the summer of 1977 at Michigan State University (MSU) where she was then teaching in the Department of Human Environment and Design (Fig. 1). My meeting with her was warm and inviting, and I was all ears as she conveyed all she knew about the Akwete weaving industry I would soon be studying for my PhD. She also introduced me to two of her Akwete Igbo colleagues at MSU, Enyinna and Chijundu Chuta,1 who, through her encouragement, had already made the essential contacts and arranged a place for me to stay in their village. I was grateful for Eicher's efforts and saw in them the very qualities and abilities that many of us have come to respect and admire in her. Eicher showed me her passion for the subject of African textiles, a willingness to share that vast knowledge with others, and an exceptional knack for networking. Bobbie Sumberg, a former student of Eicher's who went on to do curatorial work at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe2 summed it up well when she said:
Joanne Eicher is an idea generator, a people connector, a promoter of scholars and students and their work, a tremendously engaged and interested scholar in a wide ranging field, a big-picture thinker, and a strategist.3
Heather Akou, now an associate professor of fashion design and merchandising at Indiana University, shared similar thoughts: "I could not have asked for a more open-minded, supportive, and talented mentor, or one with a better knowledge of African textiles and dress."4
Now, nearly forty years since my first meeting with Joanne Eicher, and reflecting on testimonies such as these and her extensive list of accomplishments and awards, I am honored to celebrate her illustrious and successful career in building and shaping the field of African textiles, dress, and fashion. My essay begins by discussing her educational background, the roots of her interest in African cloth, and her sociocultural approach to its study. It then gives a broad survey of her extensive scholarship and professional work centered specifically on Africa. Where relevant, I reference Eicher's work on Western-focused topics but leave it to others to give more thorough attention to that important dimension of her career. Seen as a whole, Eicher's accomplishments underscore her ongoing and strong commitment to collaboration and coauthorship, a social science-based model that distinguishes her work from that of many of us in the field of African art and visual culture.
Michigan State University was the center of Eicher's academic life from her undergraduate years to the late 1970s. She earned her BA in 1948, with a major in languages and literature and a minor in textiles and clothing. With the latter remaining very much on her mind, she turned to sociology and anthropology for her graduate studies, earning both an MS (1952) and a PhD (1959) at MSU in those areas. From the late 1960s until 1977, she taught in MSU's Department of Human and Environmental Design. By the summer of 1977, when we first met, the University of Minnesota had already recruited her to head their Department of Textiles and Cloth.5 Now retired from UMN after nearly thirty years of teaching there, she retains the honorable title of Regents' Professor.
Eicher's foray into the world of African textiles began in the 1960s. In 1963, she and her husband at that time, Carl K. Eicher, an agricultural economist,6 began a three-year residency in the Economic Development Institute at the newly founded University [End Page 38] of Nigeria-Nsukka (UNN).7 Working under contract with the University of London, a team of MSU faculty was charged with the responsibility of setting up programs in economic development at UNN. At that time, the university was divided between two campuses, Nsukka and Enugu, and it was in the latter where the Eichers lived and worked. Though Eicher was already teaching at MSU, she was...