Friday, August 1, 2014

Gwen Marston Talks About Textiles from West Africa

Folk Art Textiles from Benin, West Africa.

            Benin is a long thin country sandwiched between Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa that, from the 17th century, recorded their history by hand stitching applique panels.
            I discovered their work when my daughter sent me a gift she had found in her travels. When I unwrapped the package and found the Lion panel (Plate 1) I was speechless, simply speechless. Always having loved folk art and particularly appliqued and pieced work, the Lion was by far the most exciting piece I’d seen. It just looked like it was going to jump off the panel and bite my head off.  It sent me on a search and eventually I accumulated 14 pieces, of which I am happily sharing five with you.
            The panel in Plate 2 tells the whole story. These are the traditional images depicting the names and dates of all the rulers in a section of Benin where the Dahomey people lived. Their capital, and center of power, was Abomey. Apparently they didn’t have an accurate date for the first king, but they began documenting the dates with the second king who ruled from 1620-1645, continuing the record keeping until 1900.
This work, done by men, also depicted images that honored the exploits of each ruler. You see the same images in the loose arrangement in Plate 3.  The Bird (Plate 4) like the Lion is an example of panels that were made using just one image from the original shapes.
Artists were free to create their own variations of the original images as seen in both the Lion and the Bird. This idea of using a body of traditional designs is also part of our own quiltmaking tradition and one that I have always cherished. We also share a common set of both pieced and applique designs, i.e. Whig Rose, Nine-Patch, and it was common for early quilters to make their own versions from the traditional designs.
Sometime in the late 20th century Benin artists began to work with untraditional shapes, drawing on familiar animal and plant images. The spectacular Leopard (Plate 5) is a fine example of this, and by the way, the leopard is not made with a printed fabric; the spots are sewn on individually.
A signature characteristic of this bold work is the use of bright colors coupled with the combination of identifiable and abstract shapes worked in bright colors, mostly against black backgrounds. It’s very appealing to me, and I hope you like it too.
Photo Credit: all photos by Grady Marston

Lion 40" x 28"

Pictorial history of the Kings of Abomey showing dates of their reign. 49" x 35"

A combination of historical images 32" x 23"

Bird 43" x 29"

Leopard Contemporary Design 60" x 45"


  1. I love this! Thank you so much, Pam and Gwen! I was thrilled to see some of these in Sisters a few years ago. These were my favorites of the Save it for Sunday quilt tour. I so glad you reminded me of them!

    1. Glad you liked this post Kristin. You know a little about folk art too.