Professional indignation got the better of Roslyn Walker, the Dallas Museum of Art's curator of African Art, when she saw photos of the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit that will open at the museum in mid-November.
Walker recognized historical African influences in the French fashion designer's collection that were similar to the sub-Saharan pieces in the DMA's permanent collection. She said she realized that the museum's collection, paired with significant loans, could result in an exhibit that would play well with the Gaultier display. It was an opportunity, Walker says, that she couldn't resist.
So, a late addition to the DMA's schedule is "African Headwear: Beyond Fashion," Walker's curatorial effort to contrast headwear that signified social or marital status, gender, age, military rank, hunting prowess or religious affiliation with fashion's ornamental creations. She didn't hedge her intent; the subtitle, "Beyond Fashion," lays it on the line. These elaborate African works are social signifiers that carry the same weight as a five-bedroom house, desired ZIP code, sports trophy, fancy car and stock portfolio -- whereas Gaultier's pricey accessories are made solely to titillate a fashion editor's eye and are rarely made for resale or street wear.
In her small, three-gallery exhibit of 46 pieces are examples of dramatic heroism and sweet significance, humorous cross-cultural adaptations and extravagant craftsmanship. Accompanying the pieces are informative text panels and photographs of the pieces, many of them still in use.
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There are head pieces that indicate ultimate achievement within a culture and ones that signify that the wearers have yet to make their mark. As a rite of manhood, Maasai warriors were expected to kill a lion single-handedly, armed only with a shield and a spear; those that did and lived didn't have to tell their tale -- they had the lion's mane fashioned into a tall hat so that they would tower over their unmanly brothers. Those young men who had yet to kill a lion had to wear a large oval covered in ostrich feathers that encircled their faces, much like a furry toilet seat. Imagine the pressure to shed the oval and step up to the mane-wearing ranks.
Several of the headpieces on display are protective in nature, shielding the head from all manner of dangers, such as spears, as well as things that could fall out of trees, such as snakes and poisonous insects. Some are made of thickly woven fibers, others are brass-plated. But they all carry some form of decoration: cowry shells, feathers, fur or beads. One large headpiece from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that looks quite regal is actually meant for an infant. The woven conical hat with a long tapering brim in the back would shield the baby, who was carried papoose-style on his mother's back.
Many are used for ceremonial occasions. Zulu brides wear a large disc of human hair that has been felted and dyed ochre. The bride and her mother make the hat using their own hair, supplemented with raffia, which they twist and weave into the large circle. It symbolizes the bond between mother and child.
The brides of the Himba people, herdsmen from Namibia, use cowhide headdresses that simulate a cow's head with a rolled front edge, framed by long cowlike ears that the bride wears for the first month of her married life. The structure causes a kind of tunnel vision, says Walker, which literally makes the bride focus only on her intended and, symbolically, on her new life as a married woman. Later, she will don a head piece of goatskin that looks like a small diadem with flowers and a long tail tufted with animal hair.
Other headdresses invoke societal strictures. The Lega people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have a governing body of elders instead of a single chief. Lega men wear the sawamazembe, a hat that looks like a woman's braided hairstyle, and the women wear a muzombolo, a headpiece topped with a phallic shape. This cross-gender representation stresses mutual support for the good of the community, Walker says.
Then there are the royal crowns; the most elaborate ones are from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Tall conical hats topped with effigies of birds and decorated with royal ancestors and a veil of beads look similar to papal miters. The bird at the apex represents communication between heaven and earth, and the long cascade of beads is to disguise the wearer so that the focus is on the ancestors.
For more casual occasions, the Yoruba king might choose to wear a cap made entirely of white seed beads that is fashioned to look like an English barrister's wig. This cultural adaptation of British authority is used when the king has to preside at a local court or attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The beadwork is quite beautiful and the headpiece is much finer than the ratty-looking wigs it emulates.
For sheer volume, nothing comes close to the royal messenger's headdress from Cameroon. The large puff ball of purple raffia, which is 2 feet across, is one of the stars of the show for its size and its clever construction, which allows it to be folded into itself for storage.
Also on display is a contemporary Nigerian gele, which is little more than a length of stiffened fabric about the size of a pareo that, in accomplished hands, becomes an elaborate hat of dramatic folds resembling a butterfly or flower. When done correctly, and it takes a master, no pins are used -- just artful wrapping and twisting.
The "African Headwear" exhibit is an interesting transition between the DMA's current exhibition, "Art of the American Indians," which displays headgear with similar social distinctions, and the show that will replace it, "The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk." It is a reminder that adornment can convey wealth and status but that, in many instances, much more significant information is being relayed.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113