Friday, November 16

Fowler Museum exhibit wrapped in African pride


Friday, February 12, 1999

Fowler Museum exhibit wrapped in African pride

ON-CAMPUS: High school students explore culture, history of
Ghanaian kente

By Linda Choi

Daily Bruin Contributor

Walking into the gallery, kente cloth doesn’t just speak to you.
It shouts out its royalty, sacredness and status with rich, rainbow
colors and intricate patterns.

Starting Sunday and continuing through July 6, the Fowler Museum
of Cultural History at UCLA will showcase the history of kente in
Ghana and its "discovery" by contemporary America.

The major exhibition, titled "Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente
and African American Identity," is a bold love letter to a craft
that’s been elevated to an art form. Worn at occasions such as
weddings, graduations and baptisms, this once exclusively Ghanaian
textile is part of many African Americans’ identities.

What’s unique about the exhibition is that curators and other
museum staff were not solely responsible for the extensive study
and planning that went into "Wrapped in Pride." Its existence is
owed to an eclectic collaboration of 45 high school students from
Los Angeles and Newark, N.J.

Through interviews and documentary photography, juniors and
seniors from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles spent a year
collecting information about kente’s meaning in their African
American community. They worked the entire 1996-1997 school year in
tandem with the Fowler Museum.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in Newark, juniors from the Chad
Science Academy and freshmen from University High School did the
same, working alongside Newark Museum experts.

This year-long, intensive course has become a passionate display
of African heritage that will soon be open to the UCLA campus and
other visitors.

Three students were chosen for paid summer internships at the
Fowler Museum. Danielle Smith, Crenshaw High’s 1997 valedictorian,
was one of those selected. She felt an especially personal bond and
joy while participating in the project. It unraveled many mysteries
and answered many questions she had about the cloth of her
heritage.

"Kente was something I had always seen, but I didn’t realize
that it contained so much history behind it. It’s a visual
language; it speaks of history through the symbolic gestures of
patterns and colors," says Smith, now a sophomore at Pitzer College
in Claremont.

In Los Angeles, Smith and her peers interviewed over 100 people
who frequently wear or otherwise use, work with, buy or sell kente.
The group included clothing vendors, artists and fashion designers,
as well as prominent public figures, such as former Los Angeles
Police Chief Willie Williams, Maulana Karenga, founder of Kwanzaa,
and the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal
Church.

Photographs taken during community events at which the cloth was
worn supplemented the heavy research as well.

"A lot of different kinds of people will probably agree that
kente is just beautiful and totally aesthetic," Smith says.

"Wrapped in Pride" is divided into two sections: First, it
traces the roots of kente and its widespread use in Africa. Then,
it explores kente as a meaningful expression of dress, art and
identity in American culture, specifically African American
communities.

Doran Ross, director of the Fowler Museum, co-organized the
project with co-curator Anne Spencer of the Newark Museum. Adding a
special touch of authenticity to the display is Ross’ 25 years of
research on Ghanaian expressive culture.

"The textiles and designs of kente are most fascinating. Kente
engages a variety of people," says Ross, noting the allure and
beauty of kente that surpasses cultural boundaries.

Whether people know it or not, Ghanaian culture is ever-present
in modern America. Kente is often the clothing of choice during
Kwanzaa, the African American spiritual holiday. Its popularity and
appeal is expanding, especially since its public exposure by famous
figures like Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Oprah
Winfrey.

The fabric has become a symbol of the Pan-African movement, too,
representing black identity and pride. That trend dates back to
1958, when the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, visited
Washington, D.C. wearing the cloth. After his visit, other
prominent African and African American political figures began
wearing it as well.

"Ever since the independence of Ghana, kente has jumped into U.S
culture and has since taken many paths," Ross says. "It’s a special
cloth to African Americans because it speaks of connections with
Africa."

Aside from its cultural and symbolic significance, kente is
clearly, plainly, universally, an eye-catching piece of art, as
Fowler Museum visitors will discover themselves, starting this
weekend.

EXHIBIT: "Wrapped in Pride" will be on view Wednesdays through
Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 8 p.m. Admission is
free. For more information, call (310) 825-4361.PATIL
ARMENIAN/Daily Bruin

The traditional clothing of a Ghanaian king and his companion
are on display in the "Wrapped in Pride" exhibit at the Fowler
Museum.

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