Textiles That Talk – East African Kangas and Their Meanings

Kangas are rectangular printed cotton fabrics, sold in pairs, that have been worn by women in East Africa from the eighteenth century to the present day. Their changing designs embrace motifs from a global range of decorative traditions, with inscriptions that include traditional Swahili proverbs, political slogans and public information messages. They have become a transnational phenomenon, manufactured in China and India as well as Tanzania and Kenya; new designs appear frequently. Kangas are an area of developing scholarly attention and lively online discussion. The aim of Textiles That Talk is to create a systematic digital archive of the many hundreds of kanga designs.

As everyday items of apparel kangas articulate a language of interpersonal relations. The inscriptions send a message from the wearer, sometimes to a specific person—a spouse, maybe, or a love rival—sometimes to the world in general. A few examples. The inscription on a green-and-indigo floral kanga asks a question: Mbona mmenuna—”Why are you sulking?”.  A multi-coloured, polka-dot kanga says Hujui kitu—“You don’t know anything”.  A red and yellow kanga says Alaa Kumbe—”Oh, I see”. And a sky-blue kanga with a traditional cashew-nut motif says Mama nipe radhi kuishi na watu kazi—”Mother, give me your blessing; living with people is hard”.

Project Advisors:

Amy Herman, Bard Visual Resource Center
Madhukant Pushpendra Shah, Nairobi
Roshni Shah, Nairobi
Kawira Mwirichia, Nairobi
Farooque Abdela, Zanzibar

Textiles That Talk forms an online catalogue raisonné of these and many other kangas. The collection is available on Artstor.org

High-resolution images are accompanied by searchable metadata recording inscriptions, visual motifs, manufacturers and technical details of each textile. The collection is open-access, and designed to be expanded regularly, with contributions from multiple sources. It is aimed at those with an interest in textiles, art history, and the cultures of East Africa. A physical exhibition of kangas at Bard College, in the Hegeman Building, accompanies the project, featuring classic and contemporary kangas and a set of LGBTQ designs created by the Kenyan designer Kawira Mwirichia.

Past and present members of the project team:

John Ryle, Legrand Ramsey Professor of Anthropology, Bard College

Caila Drew-Morin, Graduating Senior, Anthropology, Bard College

Emma Considine, Freshman, Studio Arts, Bard College

Caleb Cumberland, Graduated Senior, Historical Studies, Bard College

Livia Sponberg-Paraday, Junior, Visual Arts, Bard College

Grace Drennan, Junior, Environmental and Urban Studies, Bard College

Armaan Alkazi, Graduated Senior, Bard College