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College Row
Textile art
This painted and dyed textile was inspired by a drawing by Nigerian artist Twins Seven-Seven.

Beier Collection debuts at Mead

This spring, the Mead Art Museum displayed for the first time the Beier Collection of Yoruba textiles, which the college acquired in 2002. The exhibit, called Cloth Only Wears to Shreds: Textiles and Photographs from the Beier Collection, included many of the collection’s 160 pieces, together with videos that documented the use and social function of these textiles in Nigeria. It also included a showing in Frost Library of many of Ulli Beier’s remarkably intimate photographs of Nigerian life. The textiles on display in the Mead included traditional indigo-dyed everyday garments, gold-threaded formal fabrics, wildly eclectic ceremonial costumes and bold modern designs. The cloth also displayed an enormous variety of geometric patterns, dying techniques and weaving styles. According to Jill Meredith, the director of the Mead Art Museum, the Beier Collection is “the core of an international resource for Yoruba art and culture at Amherst College.”

The exhibit’s variety reflected the importance that textiles play in Yoruba culture and religion, where the significance of cloth goes beyond body covering to express a profound belief system. In its creation, the color, weave and design of cloth reflect the aesthetic sensibilities and character of the artist, as well as the wearer. Extensive use of opulent materials in a garment conveys power and authority. Cloth not only defines the identity of the individual and of the family, but also evokes the wearer’s ancestors, thus creating a metaphorical link between the living and the dead. The Yoruba believe that fabric outlives its owner, that it can disintegrate but cannot disappear from the material world. The phrase “cloth only wears to shreds” is a refrain from an Ifa divination verse that refers to this deathless, eternal quality and equates cloth with the Yorubas’ Supreme Creator.

Rowland Abiodun, the John C. Newton Professor of Fine Arts and Black Studies, who was co-curator of the exhibit with John Pemberton III, the Stanley Warfield Crosby Professor of Religion, Emeritus, points out that when people meet on the street in Nigeria, it is polite to greet the clothing before greeting the clothing’s wearer. “To not greet the cloth would be an insult,” he says. “It would be as though you were saying that the person did not exist and he or she is not beautiful. If you had $1,000 and you wanted to give it to a person, he wouldn’t take it until you had greeted him properly. Remember, cloth itself is a deity.”

The gallery’s vivid display of color, texture and movement was a reflection of Ulli Beier, who first recognized and promoted textiles as a major form of Yoruba artistry and cultural expression. As an internationally known writer, teacher, scholar, translator, performing arts producer, photographer and art collector, Beier catalyzed cultural change in Nigeria by promoting interaction between indigenous and world artists, writers and scholars. Together with his wife, Georgina, Beier fostered the global appreciation of Yoruba art and culture through experimental publications, theaters and galleries.

As part of the Beier exhibition, Professor Abiodun invited Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel laureate in literature and a long, close associate of Ulli Beier, to give a lecture on “Orisa and Yoruba Humanism” in Johnson Chapel. Soyinka, who was imprisoned during Nigeria’s civil war in 1967, is considered one of the finest poetical playwrights in English, combining Yoruba traditions
and Western culture.

Next: Professor Hagadorn’s Precambrian preemies >>

Photo: Stephen Petegorsky



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