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February 18, 2002

Exhibit celebrates kente cloth

By Allison Germaneso Dixon


The colorful splendor of Ghanaian textiles will fill the third-floor galleries at the Carlos Museum during “Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity,” on view Feb. 23–June 16.

This celebrated, nationally touring exhibition examines and honors Ghanaian kente cloth as a worldwide expression of African and African American identity. “Wrapped in Pride” explores the roots of kente in the Asante and Ewe cultures of Ghana, its widespread use in Africa, and the many ways kente has been adopted in the United States, beginning in the 1950s and continuing to the present.

Originally organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the Newark Museum, the exhibition has been touring for three years. It brings together dozens of examples of traditional and modern kente cloth, including masterpieces from the permanent collections of the Newark and Fowler museums, the Smithsonian Institution and leading private collections.

Johnnetta Cole, retired Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies, is associate curator for the exhibition in Atlanta. “Of all the artifacts and cultural expressions that come from the African continent,” Cole said, “nothing symbolizes for African Americans a connection to our ancestral home like kente cloth. My decision to become involved with this exhibit flows not only from a deep personal affinity with kente cloth, but an interest in seeing its beauty and vibrancy shared far beyond black communities.”

Kente is a hand-woven, narrow strip cloth—often containing bright, primary colors with patterned motifs at regular intervals—that long has been a part of the ritual and culture of Ghanaian society. Today, kente is prominent in contemporary African American society as well, often embraced as a symbol of black identity.

A range of patterns is displayed and examined, with examples of kente cloth supplemented by a rich selection of field, historical and documentary photographs and objects that contextualize the cloth in Ghanaian life and relate its fascinating history.

The first half of the exhibition introduces Ghanaian kente with cloths and photographs that demonstrate its striking beauty, and with oral traditions and proverbs that convey its personal, social and political importance. The second half of the exhibition traces the history and uses of kente in the United States, beginning with Ghana’s independence in 1957, an event of national significance for African American communities.

A new section focusing on the diverse meanings and uses of kente in Atlanta will be featured during the exhibition’s run at the Carlos. “Kente in Atlanta” is based on a yearlong community research project coordinated by site curator Corinne Kratz, working with students from Emory and other Atlanta universities and with Cole.

With a wealth of photographs, this section shows the pervasive use of kente cloth and kente designs in Atlanta—from Kwanzaa and African American Heritage Month to graduations, weddings and church services to fashion and home decor. It features residents who wear, use or work with kente. Atlantans’ diverse ideas about kente’s meanings, importance and history challenge visitors to reflect on the meaning of kente in African American life and on the longevity of the phenomenon.

A website is devoted to “Kente Memories” at Visitors to the site can read the kente stories of prominent Atlantans and are encouraged to share their own. “Wrapped in Pride” also is accompanied by a 248-page illustrated catalogue ($39, softcover). The publication features essays by a number of leading scholars addressing the development and meaning of kente and issues of dress and identity, as well as numerous color images of works in the exhibition. The catalogue will be available in the museum bookshop.