Very fine Aso oke strip weave woman’s shawl, ipele, Yoruba peoples, Nigeria, circa 1880-1900.
Rare nineteenth century shawl woven from extremely fine magenta silk ‘alaari’ thread from the trans-Saharan caravan trade, along with white hand spun cotton with supplementary weft floats in green industrial cotton. The strips are carefully arranged with the most elaborate float patterns at the lower edge, a plain strip at the top, two simpler openwork strips separating groups of float adorned openwork. The survival of such a fragile cloth for over a century is testament to it’s high status as an heirloom within a wealthy family. In excellent complete condition, some tiny repairs.
Measurement: 70 inches x 41 inches, 179 cm x 104 cm.
Other early shawls of related types that we have collected are now in the collections of the British Museum, Musee du Quai Branly, Paris and the Worldmuseum, Vienna. For another related shawl in the late C19th Beving collection in the British Museum see Af1934,0307.127. A shawl in the MFA Boston (here) is described as a “wedding shawl” and named as “popofi” -however ofi in Yoruba just means loom and popofi is a word once used for any time of cloth woven on a local loom as opposed to imported fabric rather than a specific name for this cloth. Whilst it is entirely possible that these shawls were worn at weddings there is no ethnographic evidence that this was the case and it is safer to note that they were high status shawls , based on the superb quality of the weaving and the expensive silk fibers used rather than to posit a more specific use. We can however provide visual evidence of a secondary use as part of masquerade costumes.
Eyo or Adamorisha, is the signature masquerade performance of Lagos island, still enacted as an annual festival event. Today the performers wear imported white lace robes and veils but images from the early colonial era show a combination of agbada gowns in various colours with locally woven openwork aso oke cloths similar to that above. We can imagine the performers borrowing women’s shawls from wives or mothers for this purpose, and that their participation in the spiritually charged performance added an additional layer of meaning to the textiles.
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