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29.03.2007 Travel & Tourism

Ghana makes fashion statements at British Museum

By guardian
Fabrics of life ... women showing their cloth-making skills at the Women's Training Centre in Kpobiman Village in Ghana. Photograph: David Levene
LISTEN MAR 29, 2007
Fabrics of life ... women showing their cloth-making skills at the Women's Training Centre in Kpobiman Village in Ghana. Photograph: David Levene

Forget badges and wristbands, to get a true idea of what it's like to wear your heart on your sleeve, head to a new costume exhibition in London.

There are more ways of speaking than words. You may not think about them as speaking but they are forms of expression: pro-abortion badges, anti-abortion bumper stickers, ribbons against Aids, wristbands against poverty, wristbands against wristbands.

These are all add-ons, shiny accoutrements for our clothes or our cars; they are not fundamental parts of our costumes, integral to the item's meaning. In Ghana, however, all these messages are conveyed not by something you pin onto your clothes but by your clothes themselves.

The British Museum's new mini exhibition The Fabric of a Nation: textiles and identity in modern Ghana (Room 3), celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence from Britain, is all about this very subject. Despite a yawn-inducing title, the show itself is fascinating, unfolding meanings which are hidden despite being on open display. Ghanaian fabric is at least as much about intense symbolic value as its delicious colours.

One category is cloth which incorporates visual interpretations of proverbs. The fabric called "Sika wo antaban" ("money has wings") has a flying bird in its pattern to illustrate how transient money can be if you're not careful. There are also more obscure references conveying moral messages: snails imply insignificance; hence anyone who sees the cloth shouldn't take the wearer for granted.

Another type is overt symbols representing political allegiance, school attendance or professional interests, for example. There is a wonderful cloth which has the badge of Ghana's meteorological services imposed over millions of tiny clouds.

This category is very familiar to us from our school blazers, but even these are not everyday wear, as Ghanaian cloth is: ours are compulsory emblems of loyalty.

There are occasional designs too, with candidates' portraits on for elections or to commemorate special times. One print would have killed Andy Warhol: the Queen's visit to Ghana led to a pattern of her head in red and white next to the Ghanaian president. It would be mass-market kitsch over here, but in Ghana it's meaningful and celebratory.

What is particularly interesting is the post-modern crisis these clothes are going through. They may be designed to convey a certain message, but what the manufacture intends, what the client sees and what everyone understands may be very different things. It is impossible to pin down meanings, as they shift with perspective.

Added to this is the move from an older generation's symbolic interpretation to a young generation's more aesthetic approach. On a purely visual level, this room, with its racks and rows of fabrics, is ecstasy for the eyes. Every bright and vivid colour you can imagine, every design - circles, leaves, birds, eyes, flowers - is there, gorgeously enticing. The patterns are not just as loud as you like: there is some very subtle colouring and alignment of colours.

If you want to get an idea of what it really is to wear your heart on your sleeve - and to understand the subtleties of another culture - head for the BM. Just leave your wristbands at home.