The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End

September 30, 2008–April 5, 2009

Sokari Douglas Camp, CBE (British, b. 1958)

Kalabari culture revolves around cloth especially for women. Our heirlooms are cloth. A key concern is how much important cloth you have to clothe the family for big occasions, funerals, births, marriages. We lay cloth out for wakes, covering rooms, beds, and even the deceased. When the body is buried a display of the cloth used for the wake is exhibited for a week with coral and jewelry. As a girl, I graduated from beads to wearing a dress and subsequently additional cloths over time. The way the cloth is wrapped around one's body and the height of it depended on one's age and importance. So I was always very conscious of fabric. Some cloths (prints) can not be worn in some areas of my town during important occasions.

As an artist I like figures that are clothed. . . . .The different styles of clothing and textiles in Nigeria and Europe [as well as] the fabrics that cross cultures have been features in my work. f The tactile qualities in fabrics and the way the material is worn is fascinating to me.

—Sokari Douglas Camp (London, 2007)

Trained at the Royal College of Art and now working in the U.K., Sokari Douglas Camp remains keenly engaged with the cultural life of the Kalabari people of Nigeria where she spent her early childhood. Douglas Camp has regularly revisited the scene of her formative years and made it a major subject of her artistic explorations.

As a female artist who expresses herself in the physically demanding medium of welded metals, Douglas Camp occupies a unique place. Her expansive sculptural portrayals distill their subjects' physicality to essential features. These hollowed representations omit certain aspects of the body and exactingly define others through cutting out two-dimensional designs from sheets of metal. Although Douglas Camp's work is predominantly figurative in nature, it emphasizes the abstract forms of negative space so that blouses, textile wrappers, and tied headgear are rendered elegantly as openwork shells. In doing so she endows these solid armatures with a whimsical lightness and grace. She has also sought to infuse sculpture with a sense of vitality through evoking movement both by introducing kinetic features and underscoring the performative and active dimension of her subjects.

Moving easily between the Niger Delta and London, Douglas Camp's oeuvre visually summons individuals she has observed in Buguma festivals or Brixton markets. Best known for her evocations of regional masquerade festivals, her work has responded to events that have unfolded in the Niger Delta that are of universal import. These have included the tragic execution of the author Ken Saro Wiwa, the ecological disasters that have resulted from oil exploitation in the Niger Delta, and the legacy of the Slave Trade. Many of the female subjects alluded to in her sculptures reflect the Kalabari aesthetic practice of widening the lower body through wrapping it in multiple layers of cloth. Both the considerable heft of a substantial corporeal being and the lavish use of costly textiles are favored for their identification with prosperity and abundance. Douglas Camp further insists on the inherent aesthetic qualities of textiles by highlighting their decorative patterns and suggesting their flowing movements in the most inflexible of media.