African art has never been frozen in time – it is always changing. West Africa is the heartland of African textile production and – like other African art – the textiles made in this region have been transformed and refigured over time. From the Kente cloth of Ghana and bogolan of Mali, to the indigo Adire cloth of Nigeria and printed cottons of Guinea, both tradition and innovation are evident. The availability and use of new technologies and materials, the exposure to new design sources, changes in religious and cultural traditions, the ingenuity of individual artists, and commercial global market forces have all influenced the design, color, meaning, and function of West African textiles.

This exhibition includes examples of cloths that illustrate some of these changes. While bogolan for traditional use is painted in great symbolic detail, commercial works are produced quickly with pleasing designs and, often, western markets in mind. Fine artists from Mali using traditional vegetable dyes with original designs now exhibit their bogolan in contemporary art galleries in Europe and the United States.

Many of the textiles in this exhibition were donated to the MSU Museum by MSU faculty who represent a range of specialties in African studies and who collected the textiles while traveling, working, and living in West Africa. The textiles thus also serve as documents of the breath and longevity of the university’s engagement in West Africa.

African art belongs to the past and to the present. Threads of Change: The Transformation of West African Textiles provides a unique opportunity to view magnificent artistry of both the past and the present. This exhibition is intended to help viewers gain an understanding of the skills required to make this art and the historical and cultural contexts in which that art has been made.