Madagascar–an island nation located off the southeast coast of Africa– has a spectacular tradition of handwoven cloths, known as lamba. “While the handwoven silks are spectacular and have always attracted Westerners’ attention, it is quite amazing to see the fineness, colors and softness of the textiles Malagasy women have crafted from spun bark and other materials such as cotton, hemp and raffia fibers,” said exhibition curator Christine Mullen Kreamer. Guest curator Sarah Fee adds, “Cloth is arguably the best artistic tradition of the island.”
Malagasy weaving flourished until around 1950 . Due to varied ecology in Madagascar, many different materials were used to weave with and formed various s t y l e s o f m a i n l y s t r i p e d clothTextiles were an essential part Malagasy social and ethnic identity. Some types of cloth were imbued with supernatural powers. The Sakalava, Mahafaly, and Merina were three Malagasy cultures for which textiles played an important role in statecraft and metaphysical belief systems Malagasy weaving was associated with women and t h e f e m a l e i d e n t i t y . T h e relationships between weaving, the ancestors, and reburial are issues that reflect a dynamic world of spiritual power, social importance, and symbolism.
A Madagascar-wise tale stated that the original union of a man and a woman, the wife brought the cloth and a mat, while the h u s b a n d p r o v i d e d h o u s e building and agriculture. Hence, traditionally, a women’s domestic skills, intelligence and industry were judged largely on her weaving.For the Malagasy, cloth holds many metaphors for life. Its mention in proverbs, songs a n d t r a d i t i o n a l o r a t i o n demonstrates that it is more than just an important economic, material good. Cloth i s the material manifestation of hasina, a mystical, sacred force that strengthens human relationships.
As an offering to a bride and encircling a newly married couple, it signifies love and commitment. As a gift to foreign leaders, it demonstrates friendship and honor. Wrapped around the body of the deceased or draped over a coffin, it symbolizes respect and connection to ancestors. Worn as a garment, it conveys an individual’s identity. Cloth communicates power, authority, respect, personality, friendship and love as well as invites blessings.Malagasy weavers use a variety of fibers, producing a diversity of woven textiles. Among them are darkly colored, rectangular textiles accented with one or more striped patterns running down the center or along the sides.
Traditionally the primary article of clothing woven by Malagasy women was the lamba. Lamba is the term that the highlanders used, other colloquial names exist. It was created by sewing together two pieces to form a rectangle measuring around 2 m x 2.5 m. Warp created stripes adorned this cloth, with the stripes running around the waist horizontally. The Lamba was worn differently depending on the emotional and physical needs of the wearer to: protect from cold, hide timidity, show action and determination, or indicate mourning. It also served as a: blanket, apron, scarf, belt, bedding, turban, kitchen cloth, bag/ suitcase, tent/ shelter, a w n i n g , b a b y c a r r i e r o r cradle.Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar presented two l u x u r i o u s s i l k t e x t i l e s t o President Grover Cleveland in 1886 in appreciation of the s t r o n g r e l a t i o n s b e t w e e n Madagascar and the United States
Lambamena, a textile with a rich r e d d i s h – b r o w n c o l o r a n d contrasting s t r ipes, i s often reserved for burial shrouds. Many lamba are edged with decorative fringes and ornamented with weft- float or beaded geometric and floral patterns. The exhibition i n c l u d e s b o t h h i s t o r i c a n d contemporary examples of burial shrouds as well as two stunning early-to-mid-20th-century ikat textiles–a mosquito net/tent and a wrapper.
T h e c o n t e m p o r a r y c l o t h production in Madagascar is examined in the exhibition t h r o u g h a c o m p r e h e n s i v e collection of cloths, textile art and fashions. Featured are stunning silk and cotton shoulder wraps, burial shrouds, marriage cloths, fine art textiles and high-end contemporary fashions. As the v a r i e t y o f m o d e r n t e x t i l e s d e m o n s t r a t e s , ” w e a v i n g i n Madagascar is still very vital and dynamic,” says Mullen Kreamer.