This post is by Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, former Associate Curator for African Art and Dept. Head of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia & the Pacific Islands. She recently took up a position as the Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
When I first saw this furnishing blanket from Sierra Leone, I immediately wanted it for myself – I would love to hang the crisp gray-and-white, rectilinear pattern on my wall at home. The pattern is so au courant that it could easily provide inspiration for a mass retail chain, like Urban Outfitters or Crate & Barrel, or be highlighted on home décor blogs like Apartment Therapy. Contemporary in its appeal, this furnishing blanket dates from the 1920s or earlier.
The weaver who created this textile responded to fashions in home design among Mende homeowners that happen to be fashionable in the U.S. now. The two-tone graphic impact of the design seems simple, but belies its complex construction. The weaver first wove narrow strips and then sewed them together. When you look closely, you can see that the horizontal patterns were created by weaving darker threads on neighboring strips. This means that the weaver planned the entire pattern, wove it in perfectly measured 3.5 inch sections, and then aligned the gray areas during the sewing process. The high degree of planning and expertise that went into the execution of this pattern is a subtle assertion of skill. This tactile presentation of luxurious, careful, time-consuming craftsmanship makes this object as covetable today as it was in the past.
Art is distinctly not timeless. We art lovers treasure an object over a long time, and expect future generations to enjoy it as well, but the making of art and the pleasure in viewing it is time-bound. One of the great wonders of the museum is that it pulls together multiple different moments in time in a surprising way. The Museum collection is eclectic. The taste of many different ages is on display in this building, and all the different fashions compete with each other. The game some people play in a gallery—“Which artwork would you take home?”—is fantastic, because it places us on some common ground with the original owners and admirers of an artwork. Today, this Mende furnishing blanket is definitely my answer to the question!
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.