A Jazzy Treatment Of African Textiles

March 24, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The object of any show's didactics (that is, the instructional material that goes with it) is to get the viewer to see what's there to be seen. "African Improvisations: Textiles from the Indianapolis Museum of Art," opening today at the Walters Art Gallery (through May 26), employs an imaginative way of focusing a viewer's attention on the works on view.

But it has fatal drawbacks, the principal one of which is the very ingenuity of the didactic aspect itself. What the viewer gets, when you come right down to it, amounts to an elaborate gimmick, a flashy razzle-dazzle that masks the obvious, self-evident nature of the information being presented.

It is the show's premise that various characteristics displayed by African textiles -- including their asymmetry and irregularity of pattern (so different from the "repeats" of Western fabrics), their improvisatory nature, their experimentation, etc. -- are similar to jazz music.

Aspects of the 28 mostly large textiles that make up the exhibit, divided into four sections, are explained using terms often applied to jazz. And the Walters has added another element (not used in the original Indianapolis showing), a 90-minute audio tape of jazz selections featuring such figures as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonius Monk and Pharaoh Sanders.

On a basic level the idea works within its own limits. Some characteristic of the textiles is brought to the fore in each of the four sections. The first, titled complex rhythms, points out that weaving, like jazz, is rhythmic, but that, just as jazz improvisations vary the rhythms, so the narrow-band textiles of west Africa have varied, improvisatory, syncopated rhythms.

Thus we have a blanket from the Dyula people of the Ivory Coast with a pattern of larger and smaller blocks on the white background. The smaller blocks are the same, but the larger blocks have different patterns within them -- a diamond, or bars -- and these different-patterned blocks are distributed on the cloth in no discernible pattern.

Another blanket, from the Djerma people of Niger, looks like an illustration of music in the way small blocks with the same pattern continue for a while, then a new pattern is introduced like a new theme, then later there is a repetition of an earlier pattern like a recapitulation. There is an even more colorful central section, like the development of a musical movement. Yet another blanket, from the Dogon people of Mali, employs a black and white pattern except for a few blocks of red at the borders.

The second section, "Expanding the Form," points out that innovation is a factor in textiles as it is in jazz. To illustrate, there is a man's wrapper from the Ewe people of Togo/Ghana that not only uses rayon, a relatively recent material, but alternates traditional representational motifs such as headrests or knives with airplanes and shaded lamps. Another man's wrap from the Asante people of Ghana contains many repeated small motifs that seem based on modern origins, from geometric abstraction to I-beams to table pedestals.

A section on the player's contribution shows that just as jazz musicians interpret a given piece in different ways, so textile makers may vary given designs individually. Two women's wrappers from the Yoruba people of Nigeria contain the same group of motifs, but are executed differently. One of the motifs, for instance, is a tree above two stars. In one cloth the tree top is squared off and the star points are bulbous, while in the other the tree top is rounded while the star points are straight lines.

The final section, on spontaneity, is more convincing when dealing with the irregular design of a woman's skirt from the Kuba people of Zaire than when dealing with the "controlled chance" of dyeing techniques. Neither the control nor the chance aspect of dyeing quite fits the definition of spontaneous as "arising from immediate natural impulse."

Still, the show is effective in persuading the viewer to look at certain particular aspects of these textiles. On the other hand, an exhibit so narrowly directed as this one has its pitfalls. One is that the strength of the thesis tends to make it the focus of the whole enterprise, with the textiles acting more or less as illustrations of it.

Then, a great deal about these textiles cannot be dealt with at any length given such an approach. There are photographs that show how various pieces are worn or otherwise used. But by putting together in these sections textiles from various peoples in different places the show robs them of certain kinds of individuality. We get too little sense of the characteristics of the textiles of any particular people or place.

The subject of African textiles is a large one; but this show, when stripped to its essentials, makes oversimplified and very mundane points about them:

*That they're supposed to be asymmetrical and irregular; their integrity of design makes that perfectly clear without any explanations.

*That they reveal innovation, spontaneity and individuality. This is the stuff of a tour for children. Such points could have been taken for granted, in a show that dealt more fully, perhaps, with techniques, styles, iconography, any of a lot of more serious matters.

*The addition of a jazz tape must have seemed like a wonderful idea; in practice, it neither adds nor detracts much. It just plays along, injecting a kind of high-class background music into the experience of seeing the show.

None of the above should be taken as criticism of the textiles themselves, which are good enough to deserve better treatment than they get here.

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