Lisanby To Display African Dress

Posted: November 15, 2012

For one James Madison University class, this semester has shed a new light on art history. Led by Professor Aderonke Adesanya, students registered for her upper division class will end the term, not with a paper, but an art exhibit.
The exhibition seminar opens later this month at the Lisanby Museum, formerly the Skyline Museum, located on the lower level of the Festival Conference and Student Center. It will focus on “Dress and Identity In Africa.”
In The Classroom
Adesanya designed the lecture component of the class to expose students to different aspects of dress and the significance of clothing in African cultures, as diverse as the continent itself.
“[The course] focused on taking a broad look at the four compass points on the continent,” explained Adesanya. For example, inhabitants of northern Africa dress differently than those of the southern portion — influenced by both the Arabian and European peninsulas.
She combined grants from various programs at JMU with resources gleaned from collectors. “[Our] resources are textiles and religious objects; I sought donations from people with African collections,” she said.
Using these tools, Adesanya showed her students how clothing, particularly changes in styles, reflects shifting influences upon the cultures.
“We looked at how dress encouraged cross-cultural interaction …  how mercantilism, that is global trade, encouraged change in dress,” she said.
As one example, the class analyzed the shift in gele, hair adornments characteristic of the Yoruba women of Nigeria. These transitioned from simple cotton cloths to blended fabrics, reflecting the influence European and Asian imports into Africa.
Each student was asked to style their own gele. “The class allowed each individual to dictate how each [gele] should be. They named them, and wrote responses on how they were. We called it ‘Sculpting Spectacular Hair,’ ” Adesanya explained.
Exercises such as this prepared the students for their biggest assignment, and set the stage for the upcoming exhibit.
Pattern To Page
Though there was a group essay, the curriculum mostly prepared students to take part in the program hosted at the Lisanby.
“Students were able to select cultures from each region … some [components of dress] are well-known, like Kente cloth or Adinkra cloth, that are encountered in Western spaces,” Adesanya said.
But some students took roads less traveled, she said, seeking out cultures with which they were largely unfamiliar.
Megan Aguilar, a 23-year-old graduate student studying art education, was one such student. She opted for the southern tip of the continent, focusing on adornments of the Zulu and Xhosa cultures of South Africa.
“I mostly investigated their beadwork, and how [the beads] represent different gender roles,” she explained, saying most of this work is completed by women. “Whoever makes them, that reinforces roles in society.”
Aguilar focused on Xhosa religious ceremonies and initiation processes, and the role bead work plays in Xhosa courtship rituals — her classmates selected other cultures throughout the continent, to ensure each compass point gets represented.
“Everyone’s putting together their own part of the continent using different mannequins and artifacts,” she explained.
Space To Display
Luckily for Adesanya and her group, JMU has a space to accommodate a class such as this: the Lisanby Museum. Renamed last year for alumna Gladys Lisanby, the museum typically houses exhibits drawn from the Madison Collection, according to Dr. Kate Stevens, director of the Madison Art Collection.
“The Madison Art Collection is a permanent art and cultural collection. We have [items] from ancient Egypt, all parts of modern Africa. We have a Russian icon collection, Greek pottery, really, a broad range of things,” she continued.
Stevens also oversees the Prism Gallery and the Prism International Gallery — both spaces are also part of the Madison Art Collection and host exhibits throughout the year.
Hosting the exhibition seminar by Adesanya fit right into the mission of the Lisanby Museum. And it seems the display will fit perfectly with the space, according to both Aguilar and Adesanya.
“We’re hoping the overall layout will be reflective of the geography of Africa. The exhibit space coincides with the shape of the continent,” said Aguilar.
So, it seems the exhibit itself will be out of the ordinary — as was the class that inspired it.
“This class is different from just writing a paper. It’s technology and live stories,” Adesanya said.
“A lot of times, you go to class and write a paper and it’s over. It’s nice to see [our hard work] be an actual thing,” said Aguilar.

Contact Kate Kersey at 574-6218 or

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