Zaria, Nigeria; Hausa
Cotton wool; 57 x 103 in
The Newark Museum
see our earlier post about the exhibition: Power Dressing (10/21/05)
The Yoruban Equivalent of a Power Tie and Pinstriped Suit
By J. D. BIERSDORFER
Published: January 15, 2006
IF clothes do indeed make the man, that old truism gains special potency in traditions of African ceremonial dress.
A show at the Newark Museum makes the point with objects from more than a dozen cultures across the continent, from intricate South African beadwork to outsize Moroccan woolen cloaks to elaborately embroidered tunics from Mali. In both the spiritual realm and the political one, such regalia marks a man as a force to be reckoned with. (African women, the catalog observes, tend to occupy far fewer "visual spaces of power.")
One of the most literal examples in the exhibition, titled "Power Dressing: Men's Fashion and Prestige in Africa," is a large robe once worn by the deji, or regional leader, of the Yoruba ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria. The robe was fashioned from cotton, velvet and thousands of tiny beads sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century and was eventually passed to Oba Ademuwagan Adesida II, shown wearing it in 1959, when he was 34.
Measuring 50 inches wide by about 104 inches long, the loose-fitting robe adapts designs worn by the Hausa, a Muslim group to the north. Oversize robes with long flowing sleeves conveyed the notion of "bigness" or grandeur.
Like his veiled crown and slippered feet on cushions, the deji's robe symbolized the leader's sanctity. The velvet, which at that time would have had to have been imported, attests to an ability to obtain exotic luxury fabrics. While the robe's detailed construction is evident in the display case in the show, its power is even more evident in the 1959 photograph.
"It's a statement of the continued relevance of traditional rule within an independent Nigeria," said Christa Clarke, curator of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, who organized the show. When the picture was taken for Life magazine, Nigeria was on the brink of its first elections after 70 years of British rule.
The juxtaposition of past and present suggested by the photo was also embodied by the deji himself: Oba Adesida II had studied law in Dublin, passed the London bar exam and was working to bring electricity and running water to the city of Akure.