Gifts and Blessings

Gifts and Blessings The Textile Arts of Madagascar

Press Release
March 18, 2002

Media only: Kimberly Mayfield (202) 357-4600 ext. 291 Dale A. Mott (202) 357-4600, ext. 202 Public: (202) 357-2700

MEDIA PREVIEW: Tuesday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Remarks at 11 a.m. followed by lunch and a tour of the exhibition conducted by curator Christine Mullen Kreamer and guest curator Sarah Fee. R.S.V.P. to (202) 357-4600 ext. 291.

"GIFTS & BLESSINGS" AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar presented two luxurious silk textiles to President Grover Cleveland in 1886 in appreciation of the strong relations between Madagascar and the United States and in hopes that the United States would support Madagascar's sovereignty. These cloths are highlighted in "Gifts & Blessings: The Textile Arts of Madagascar," on view April 14 through September 2, 2002, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

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."

For the Malagasy, cloth holds many metaphors for life. Its mention in proverbs, songs and traditional oration demonstrates that it is more than just an important economic, material good. Cloth is 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. Lambamena, a textile with a rich reddish-brown color and contrasting stripes, is 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 includes both historic and contemporary examples of burial shrouds as well as two stunning early-to-mid-20th-century ikat textiles--a mosquito net/tent and a wrapper.

The contemporary cloth production in Madagascar is examined in the exhibition through a comprehensive 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. A particularly spectacular textile is a modern rendition of the complicated akotofahana textiles that combine both warp and weft designs, a distinctive border treatment of warp banding and a knotted fringe--techniques that have not been practiced since the mid-19th century. As the variety of modern textiles demonstrates, "weaving in Madagascar is still very vital and dynamic," says Mullen Kreamer.

Though a gift of cloth can wear out, the Malagasy believe the friendship and honor embodied in the gift endure. His excellency Zina Andrianarivelo-Razafy, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Madagascar to the United States, feels that sharing Malagasy textiles "is the optimal way to introduce the culture of Madagascar. "Gifts and Blessings" pays tribute to the enduring and priceless ties of fihavanana (kinship) the United States and Madagascar created more than 100 years ago."

In addition to the many exquisite traditional and contemporary textiles, the exhibition includes diplomatic gifts, photographs and postcards. An activity room allows visitors to try on different cloths and learn about Madagascar's diverse geography and other cultural arts.

A series of free public programs complements the exhibition including storytelling, public discussions, musical performances and three special Madagascar Family Days on April 27, June 22 and Aug. 24.

The publication Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery ad Diplomacy in Madagascar accompanies the exhibition and is available in the Museum Store located on the Level 1.

The National Museum of African Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. On Thursdays, from May 30 to Aug. 29, the museum will be open until 8 p.m. as part of "Art Night on the Mall." Telephone: (202) 357-2700 or (202) 357-1729 (TTY). National Museum of African Art home page:

NOTE TO EDITORS: Black-and-white photos and color slides are available by calling (202) 357-4600 ext. 291. A French version of this press release can be obtained from the Museum's website at

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