For hundreds of years the people of Burkina Faso in West Africa have been highly skilled in the techniques of hand spinning, dyeing and weaving the cotton harvested from their fields. Today, less than 100 tons of naturally organic cotton grown in ancestral fashion are used for the production of the narrow woven bands traditionally made into clothing and a wide range of domestic furnishings.
Yet there are still some 53 000 men and women who can practice the ancient skills of handloom weaving and dyeing as a part or full time occupation, thus preserving century-old family traditions in rural and urban communities.
The superb technical craftsmanship of these weavers is further enhanced by the amazing variety of imaginative patterns employed – ranging from abstract and animal motifs to scenes of daily life – which contribute to the wealth of great ethnic and cultural diversity of the people of Burkina Faso. This, in return, has created a magnificent textile heritage which has yet to be internationally recognised and appreciated.
However, with more than 90 percent of these highly skilled people either unemployed, or underemployed outside their traditional professions, the art of handloom weaving and all related skills are doomed. With no means to educate and train future generations, the ability to continue creating objects which are as beautiful as they are useful will be irreplaceably lost.
This summer the British European Design Group, London and the Burkina based non-government organisation SOS-SaveOurSkills present the exhibition ‘Stripcloth Splendours’ as part of the Maison & Objet’s 2012 Animation programme. Drawn from the unique ‘Projet de Tissage’ in Burkina Faso, this exhibition brings together for the first time in France, the story of the ancient textile traditions and heritage of West Africa and its survival in the 21st Century.
‘Stripcloth Splendours’ the exhibition is all about Indigenous Traditional Skills and Cultural Identity as ‘Added Value’ in the Contemporary Revival of West Africa’s Textile Heritage looking at Culture, Beauty and Identity.
‘Projet de Tissage’ began in 2006 in partnership with the British European Design Group, London and the European Union organisation EU-ACP CDE-Centre for the Development of Enterprise in Brussels. In 2007 the non-government organisation SOS-SaveOurSkills was registered in Ouagadoudou, Burkina Faso. SOS-SaveOurSkills Africa is headed by its Burkinabe co-founder and Director Desiré Maurice Ouédraogo, a qualified textile engineer and one of Burkina’s leading textile experts.
The mission of SOS-SaveOurSkills is to secure the cultural, professional and economic survival of West Africa’s traditional cotton cultivating and processing skills, in particular hand-spinning and handloom weaving. The ‘Projet de Tissage’ is aimed at empowering craftsmen and women to progress from their traditional heritage to contemporary creativity whilst ensuring the continuation of their unique cultural identity. The project is based in two villages in Burkina Faso; Napalgue – Commune Bousse and Sulgo – Commune Zinare.
The cultivation of cotton, Africa’s ‘White Gold’, at local village level on family plots was re-introduced in 2007. Since then harvests grown by the local communities from certified organic seeds have provided de facto organic cotton for local processing, spinning and weaving. All finished products are made entirely by hand without using any artificial energy or intermediate technologies. The entire programme has been designed to strengthen and build upon the indigenous knowledge and skills of the craftsmen and women, most of whom are unable to earn a livelihood from their skills.
‘Projet de Tissage‘ stresses the urgent need to build capacity both in terms of knowledge transfer, education and skills as well as creating a design-led commercial framework to protect the cultural integrity of West Africa’s traditional textile industry. Burkina Faso, Africa’s largest cotton exporter and 7th largest in the world, would be well placed to increase and support locally driven sustainable production methods to guarantee long term economic viability for its people and help protect the nation’s ancient traditions.
The exhibition will examine the significance of the traditional textile heritage showcasing the work of master weavers and explore the importance of sustainable development through cultural and environmental revival.
The exhibition has brought together a wealth of original objects used in the traditional textile weaving process. Examples will include: wooden spindles, hand spun cotton, a traditional wooden handloom, rolls of stripcloth and a variety of textiles and garments. Each tool is made by hand using locally sourced materials. Cotton is handspun by the village women.
Spinning is performed on flat stone slabs with natural wooden spindles for hours at a time. The wooden handloom, the centrepiece of the exhibition, is a singular feat of engineering. Its enduring qualities enable weavers to sustain years of weaving stripcloth, in lengths of sometimes over 100m.
The work of skilled master weavers, none of which has ever before been on display in the Western world, will provide new insights into understanding the important and critical role that indigenous craft and design play both locally as well as internationally.
UNESCO reports that integrating cultural activity into development programmes fundamentally contributes to socio-economic and environmental improvement for communities themselves. SOS-SaveOurSkills and ‘Projet de Tissage’ support UNESCO’s commitment to fostering creativity and sustainable progress by investing in culture and environmental stewardship as a dynamic force for change.
Karin-Beate Philips, Founder of the British European Design Group and SOS-SaveOurSkills said: “Projet de Tissage represents an extraordinary journey towards the re-habilitation and restoration of traditional cotton cultivating and processing – that is handloom weaving – in Burkina Faso.
It works on many levels; in supporting communities towards an equitable economic future, safe-guarding cultural identity and the heritage of West Africa’s textile traditions through building social capacity to support the continued revival of design and the creative industries.
We are indebted to the many individuals and organisations that have supported this project over the years, such as the EU-ACP CDE-Centre for the Development of Enterprise, Brussels and the Shell Foundation.
We are delighted that this unique project is being shown as part of the Animation programme of the September 2012 Edition of Maison & Objet. This will be the first time that traditional West African handloom weaving on an original loom by a senior master weaver will be shown outside of Africa and this exhibition will enable buyers, architects, interior designers, textile experts and general visitors to engage and learn about these century old craft skills – what they have been and their future potential.
Safe-guarding the diversity and heritage of the designs, motifs and patterns of the master-weavers is urgently required. This endeavour is especially critical in an increasingly globalised world.
The preservation and conservation of indigenous cultural heritage recognizes simultaneously the need for its continual adaptation, progress and evolution without interference from external factors. The challenge lays in how to bring long term economic benefit to the very people whose skills and techniques are in danger of being lost forever.
Stripcloth weaving shows us the ingenious ways in which craft and technique can be used to produce textiles from the most challenging of environments. Through international support and recognition for the communities whose dedication, knowledge and expertise brings to life textiles of beauty and dignity, SOS-SaveOurSkills will continue to develop opportunities and possibilities to ensure a long lasting future for the master-weavers and communities in Burkina Faso.”
Newly built this year was a research and development centre called SOS Atelier which was sponsored from private funding and support by Comic Relief. This creates an opportunity for international designers and SOS group of in-house weavers to collaborate on projects and thus the profile and above the value of hand-woven West African textiles through innovation. Within the studio is also found a screen printing centre and dyeing space.
SOS aims to open up new markets for the Burkinabe weavers so they can receive the recognition that their skills deserve. Having already exhibited SOS artisans in New York and London, and with a permanent instillation in the National Museum in Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, this years Paris event adds to this in a big way.
Check out Maison & Objet September 2012
7 – 11 September 2012
Entrance Hall 1,