Art and message combine in unique clothing

PHOTO PROVIDED Left, the message on this kanga is “There is an opportune time for everything.” Right, the message on this kanga is “Unity is strength.”

BELLEFONTE — The Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County will hold an opening reception for new exhibits Sunday, March 4 from 12 noon to 4:30 p.m.

A featured exhibit is “East African Women Wrap with a Message,” featuring a variety of kangas. Patricia House and Patricia Jackson have curated the exhibit, with Grace Malley as the translator, and it will be on view March 2 through April 29.

Kanga is the name of a colorful garment worn by women, and in rare instances by men, in the countries of East Africa.

Kangas are a pair of matching rectangular cloths about one meter long, created in bold designs and bright colors with a matching border around the edges. One piece is used as a sarong, covering from the waist to below the knee, and the other is used for a matching blouse, wrap or head scarf. Kangas are worn for both ordinary and ceremonial dress with messages printed on the fabric. These messages may be proverbs, sayings, wishes, announcements, commemorations and religious verses. The messages concern country, culture, politics, agriculture, science, family, religion and special celebrations.

Kangas are worn by women along the whole of the East African Coast, especially in Tanzania, Kenya and Zanzibar. Where and when they originated is debated, but early records show women in Tanzania and Zanzibar started wearing these fabrics as wraps in the mid-19th century. It seems the development of the kanga style was a reaction to the clothing worn by missionaries, which seemed cumbersome and inappropriate for tropical climates.

PHOTO PROVIDED Left, the message on this kanga is “There is an opportune time for everything.” Right, the message on this kanga is “Unity is strength.”

Kanga cloths are culturally significant and often given as a gift for birthdays and special occasions or are handed down to younger members of the family. Since the words and messages printed on kangas have cultural significance, they may be passed on to reinforce popular or sacred beliefs.

People connect by wearing kangas with the same or similar messages. This contributes to social unity and group support of a person or a cause.

The name Kanga comes from the Swahili name for guinea fowl, because the early patterns used for the fabrics resembled the plumage of that bird. Today the motifs have evolved to provide an endless variety of designs in many colors, but the name has remained the same.

The museum show includes a private collection of kangas. Intrigued by the colorful designs and messages, Pat House collected these kangas in Tanzania, Kenya and Zanzibar over a period of 30 years.

“I was attracted to the beautiful patterns and colors and I was impressed with the idea of delivering a serious message through apparel,” she said. “Although this is not unusual today, these ladies demonstrated a desire to share and publicize their beliefs before it was popular on the other continents. The kanga was one way to give East African women voice.”

This exhibition is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

The museum is at 133 N. Allegheny St. and is open from 12 noon to 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. More information is available by phoning 814-355-4280 or visiting www.bellefontemuseum.org.

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