- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

Many cultures revere the fiber arts, but cloth is more than cloth in the island nation of Madagascar. The exhibit "Gifts & Blessings: The Textile Arts of Madagascar," opening tomorrow at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, shows the magical properties of both old and new Malagasy textiles.

The Malagasy believe their hand-woven cloth, or "lamba," is an inseparable "social skin" that protects and identifies a person from birth to death. Physical appearance joins with the individual's inner and spiritual nature.

Cloth also becomes the physical expression of the life-giving force "hasina," which binds people to one another. This is why gift giving is so important on this Texas-size island off the southeast coast of Africa.

Probably the most famous royal gifts were the two luxurious silks Madagascar's Queen Ranavalona III sent U.S. President Grover Cleveland in 1886. The indigenous ruling Merina people crowned Ranavalona queen in 1883, when she was 18.

It was a tumultuous time. The queen was trying desperately to fend off both the French and the British, who wanted to control Madagascar. She turned to the United States, her nation's most important trading partner, in hope that it would support Madagascar's attempts to remain independent. The French succeeded in invading the island and colonized it through 1960.

The two silks presented to Cleveland highlights of the exhibition were woven of royal akotofahana cloth, the highest form of dress fabric. The craftspeople wove mulberry silk from Madagascar's highlands into geometric "weft-float" designs. They laboriously lifted warp threads those running lengthwise through the fabric to insert different colored weft yarns, which "float" over the ground weave.

One of the textiles is of glistening white silk. Its sheen and softness come from the mulberry silk. The other is a riot of color, although set on black grids. The first foreigners who saw it compared the silk to stained glass.

Varied fibers came from Madagascar's considerably different ecological zones. Raffia was typical of the island's east and west coasts. In the southeast, the Malagasy produced fabrics from reeds and beaten and spun bark fibers. Textiles of cotton and wild silk came from the south and west. In the central highlands, textiles derived from hemp, banana stem, domesticated mulberry silk and other fibers.

The exhibit begins with a wild-silk "wrapper" from the Betsileo people. It features bold black stripes on a rust-red background. Although woven vertically, the wrapper is worn across the body or as a shoulder decoration. The aesthetic definitely is spare and Mondrianesque.

The Field Museum in Chicago loaned an especially handsome woman's "wrapper" woven from a soft raffia fiber. The stripes march horizontally across the narrow cloth in an electric juxtaposition of reds, purples, greens and golds against an ink-black ground.

An elegantly simple plaited-reed dress and boxy jacket and hat nearby show why Malagasy design is so attractive to French fashion couturiers. Women made reed clothing from plaited and joined mats of "harefo" reeds instead of fashioning the cloth on the loom. Skillful plaiting created a cloth that was delicate and subtle.

The Malagasy were still using vegetable dyes when they fashioned the exhibit's very large raffia-fiber tent dyed using a striking technique called "ikat." The Sakalava people of the northwestern coast made ikat and called it "laimasaka" (cooked tapestry). In the dying process, tight binding demarcates the area to be left undyed for designs of such things as people, cattle and crocodiles.

Cloth plays a major role in Malagasy burial ceremonies. Custom requires that all relatives give cloth to wrap or bury the body. The Malagasy believe that in this way they assure the deceased's continued social existence in the next world.

An excellent video shows that the Malagasy periodically rebury their dead in ceremonies called "famadihana." Ancestors whose shrouds have begun to disintegrate are believed to appear to descendants in dreams saying they are cold. In reburial ceremonies, relatives bring gifts of new cloth and food in a two-day celebration. The skeletal remains are removed from the tomb, rebound in new cloth often of the finest silk and carried back to the tomb.

Cloth production in Madagascar has recently experienced a renaissance, and all kinds of clothes appear on the fashion market. Striped ties and vests are especially popular. A British art historian, Simon Peers, and local weavers created the weaving workshop known as Lamba SARL. They specialize in re-creating Madagascar's stunning akotofahana cloths.

All is not tradition, however. Zoarinivo ("Zo") Razakaratrimo takes Malagasy fibers and weaves them in new ways. In her large wall hanging "Craziness," she uses Malagasy spices and such found objects as pens, phone cards, chains, shells and even an enormous safety pin to create a new language for her island's cloths.

WHAT: "Gifts & Blessings: The Textile Arts of Madagascar"

WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, tomorrow through Sept. 2


PHONE: 202/357-2700

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