The newly published Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery, and Diplomacy in Madagascar is the first American volume to comprehensively cover the rich tradition of handcrafted textiles in Madagascar, a large island nation just off Africa’s southeast coast. Why did it take so long? If you ask Christine Mullen Kreamer, who co-edited the book in her capacity as a curator with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, her answer is simple—and only half-joking. The culprit, she says, is the country’s wildlife, including the lemur, a beloved primate that lives only in Madagascar.
“When Americans think of Madagascar, they think only of its biology,” Kreamer says. “If you searched in the Library of Congress for works on Madagascar, you’d find a lot on the environment and not very much on the people and the culture. Having worked in Africa for many years, it strikes me as wrong when there’s so much emphasis placed on the environment and not enough on communities.”
Kreamer has sought to reverse that tilt with her book and its related exhibition at the NMAA, “Gifts and Blessings: The Textile Arts of Madagascar,” on view to Sept. 2. “We use cloth as a springboard for talking about issues of history, representation, diplomacy, fashion, and identity,” she says. “Each of those are tied up in [the] notion of cloth.”
Kreamer, 49, has undertaken field research in Togo, Ghana, and other African countries, often while based in such locales as Jakarta, Indonesia, and Hanoi, Vietnam. (She followed her husband, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to postings in those far-flung cities; for now, the couple lives in Washington.) Kreamer herself is not an expert in Malagasy culture: To assemble the book and the exhibition, she relied heavily on Sarah Fee, a Smithsonian consultant who has established an ethnographic museum in Berenty, Madagascar, as well as seven other Madagascar specialists.
The textiles described in the book are unique to Madagascar, but they also resonate with the kinds of cloths that play major roles in other African societies. “Both in Madagascar and other areas of Africa, textiles are extremely important in all phases of life,” she says. “For starters, they often define the maker’s identity—traditionally, that means women, although men are now making inroads. Cloth is also connected to every phase of the life cycle. And it’s used to forge relationships—among families, between families and the community, between the leader and the nation, and between the living and their ancestors.”
The most striking cloth-related custom in Madagascar may well be the funerary rite practiced in the nation’s highlands. According to tradition, the body is wrapped and buried directly in the ground. After a few years, the remains are exhumed, under the assumption that only the pure bones—and not the impure flesh—are left. The bones are then wrapped in fine silk and reburied in a communal tomb.
This and other funerary traditions are still practiced in regions of Madagascar, and the production of fine cloth continues, both for Malagasy men and women who want to show pride in their cultural heritage and for the international fashion market. One avant-garde weaver, Zoarinivo Razakaratrimo, creates cloth wall hangings with embedded artifacts of modern society, such as safety pins, paper clips, and telephone cards; her pieces have been touted by Elle, among other high-fashion mags. Such modern textile trends, Kreamer says, illustrate that Madagascar—contrary to many contemporary assumptions—”is not an isolated place.” —Louis Jacobson