"Africana" textiles: Imitation, adaptation, and transformation during the jazz age

Susan Hannel, University of Rhode Island


Despite centuries of missionary work and trade along the African coasts, not until European colonization at the end of the nineteenth century did African art reach significant levels of visibility in Europe. French interest in Africa gained momentum when Picasso and others witnessed public performances by African-Americans of ragtime music and the cakewalk dance. This exposure led these artists to better appreciate the African sculpture they saw at Parisian flea markets, or in the many world and colonial expositions held after 1900 (Blake 1999). Contact with African music and art then contributed to abstraction in modern art. What began early in the twentieth century was, by the mid-1920s, a full-blown "negrophilia" fueled by jazz music, the Charleston dance, and the Harlem Renaissance (Archer-Straw 2000). Interest in Africa was reflected in the design of everything from furniture, ceramics, and jewelry, to garment styles and textiles (Wood 2003a). This article examines three ways in which textile artists in Europe and the United States borrowed from African and African-American art sources in order to create "Africana" textiles during the 1920s and 1930s: through imitation, adaptation, and transformation. Imitation occurred when artists borrowed by copying directly from African art. Artists adapted African art patterns to suit their creative and commercial needs, also adapting the energetic sounds of jazz onto textiles perceived to be simultaneously primitive and modern. A third group of artists transformed their source of inspiration, creating images that were the products of Western stereotypes and fantasies long associated with the African landscape, its animals, and its people, rather than images based on African art. © 2006 Berg.