Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora

Ziloka dancers. Image via CIADOn Friday, I attended an exhibition talk as part of the first major exhibition from the The Costume Institute of the African Diaspora (CIAD). Made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund award, Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora uncovers the fascinating voyage that this famous cloth has taken from its origins in Scotland; exploring the significance it has played on traditional dress and culture in the Caribbean, India, Maasailand and South Africa from the 1740s through to the present day.

The exhibition features items on loan from Vivienne Westwood and the Black Watch Museum, bringing together a variety of garments to illustrate the story. In an interview with African Prints in Fashion, CIAD Creative Director Teleica Kirkland spoke of how she put the exhibition together and what she hopes visitors will get out of it.

The inspiration for the exhibition came from my research of dress history in the Caribbean. I had visited 13 different islands to find out more about the similarities and differences in folkloric/national dresses, carnival costumes and local fashions. I knew some islands used madras fabric in their national dress, but it was only until I visited a few of them that I realized that the commonality actually gave way to marked differences in the pattern styles and colors of the madras fabric.

This makes the madras nationalistic, similarly to the clan tartans in Scotland. Many of the plantation owners were Scottish; so therefore the inspiration for all of this came from knowing that there is a very strong story to tell. […] The objective of the exhibition is to educate people about this hidden history, to essentially highlight what these different cultures within Africa and the Diaspora have done with the remnants of colonialism and war. How they turned an influence brought to them through destruction into something beautiful and captivating.

CIAD Tartan exhibitionI knew I was in the right place when I approached the venue, as the lamp posts and trees outside the exhibition space are decorated with tartan fabric. Before the gallery talk began, my eye was drawn to a Black Watch officer’s uniform from the early 1900s and the visual similarities between it and a replica of an outfit worn by the young women who worship at the Shembe church in South Africa. The Carriacou costume looks like it was made for dancing and so it was lovely to be able to watch a video of various types of Caribbean dancing that showed these wonderful fabrics in motion.

Teleica took us on the journey of her research discoveries during Friday night’s gallery talk; drawing out the important links and dates, adding in some interesting anecdotes, plus including some insights into the challenges that are perhaps inevitable when staging such a thought provoking exhibition. There is another curator talk at 6.30pm on Friday 29th August and I would highly recommend that you go along, especially if you enjoy the chance to ask questions. Not that the exhibition alone can’t answer those questions – there is a surprising amount of information to be found in a relatively small gallery space!

Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora runs from 5th to 30th August 2014 at Craft Central, 33-35 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4DS. Entry is free and the exhibition is open daily from 10am to 6pm. There is a related documentary and dance event running on Friday 12th September at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is also free to attend.

For more information, check out the exhibition website, follow CIAD on Twitter or ‘like’ their Facebook Page. All images by CIAD.

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