133 N. Allegheny Street Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823
By Serge Bielanko
Off the top of their heads, few Centre County residents are likely to know what a kanga is. And fair enough. The East African countries where the vibrantly colored two-piece woman's garments originate are a long way from the banks of Spring Creek. Yet thanks to the vision and efforts of the folks behind the scenes at the Bellefonte Art Museum (BAM) a little bit of Tanzania, Kenya, and Zanzibar are now hanging out downtown by the Post Office.
"East African Women Wrap with a Message” Kangas: An East African Garment for Women may seem like a pretty involved title for an exhibit of lady's clothing, but trust me...it's actually pretty perfect. The kanga, you see, isn't just another pair of shorts and a t-shirt that you might throw on on any given warm summer morning. Oh no no no. The kanga, which dates back to the mid-19th century, is so much more than merely an outfit. It is an expression of self. And for women in that part of Africa it is a cherished way to honor your own beliefs as well as your fellow woman's.
From the museum's exhibit guide:
Kanga cloths are culturally significant and often given as a gift for birthdays, special occasions or are handed down to younger members of the family. Since the words and messages printed on kangas have cultural signifi-cance, they may be passed on to reinforce popular or sacred beliefs. People connect by wearing kangas with the same or similar messages. This contributes to social unity and may constitute a group supporting a person or a cause.
That's a pretty cool description of clothing anywhere, anytime. Yet it seems especially important right now. Because to recognize the power of this wearable art at a time in history when much of the world is pushing hard to advance the hard-fought battle for gender equality, that's us connecting the important dots, you see?
The museum has garnered a lot of well-deserved attention over the past year or so with its Underground Railroad: A Journey to Freedom exhibit. That permanent feature highlights the escaped slaves who sought safe passage to freedom in the north via a secret network of people who wanted to help abolish slavery altogether. Bellefonte- and the very room the exhibit is housed in- played an important role in all of that.
Likewise, BAM's current exhibit has a not-so-subtle undercurrent that demands both the eye and the mind of the beholder.
This show isn't really just about looking at irresistible colors. And it's not even all about reading the social messages that nearly all kangas include in their design. This show is, in fact, a subtle but effective reminder that women across the world (and the men who support them) are unified when they speak their truth.
Or wear their truth, as the case may be.
Patricia House is executive director and founder of the nonprofit Bellefonte Art Museum, and she's also the brainchild behind this particular exhibit. House has spent a substantial about of time in Africa throughout her life and in traveling there she became a collector of kangas, and a lover of the continent and its people.
"It's a friendly, powerful and beautiful place. The Kangas are mine," she states proudly. "Over a period of 35 years I have been to Africa many times and picked up lots... giving many away as gifts. The ones I chose for the exhibition represent a variety of events and topics- from soccer to religious faith."
Why does an East African style of dress reverberate for Americans- for Pennsylvanians- living far away, I wonder?
"The women who wear Kangas (and most do still wear them, some paired with business attire) are sincere about the messages that are written on their Kangas," House continues. "One would not wear a kanga with a sentiment about which you disagreed. Kangas are often given as gifts, worn by the recipient and pass on to other family members."
In other words: the women of East Africa use kangas as an extension of their voices, of their hearts and minds.
Our daughters should know about that, I figure.
And while we're at it, so should our sons.
Don't miss this one.
"East African Women Wrap with a Message” Kangas: An East African Garment for Women. March 2-April 29, 2018.
Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County
133 North Allegheny Street, Bellefonte, PA 16823
Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00 - 4:30 pm OR By Appointment
*This exhibition is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency fund-ed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
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