Wrap Culture 

Wrapped in Pride

Drawn from over 25 years of research, "Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity," which opens this weekend at the Oakland Museum near the end of a national tour, "breaks new ground by going beyond the examination of kente's place in Ghana to study how kente has been adopted in other parts of Africa and the African diaspora, its spread to the United States, and finally, its incorporation into contemporary American life," according to co-curator Anne Spencer. For Oakland designer and merchant Elaine Pruitt, the triumph of exhibiting the colorful, strip-woven textile is more personal and intimately felt. "For me, there's an acknowledgment that it's something important, something that can be shared," says Pruitt, a member of the museum's African-American Advisory Committee. "I'm a New York girl, so I've always loved fashion," she says, tired but with humor intact after returning from a long collecting trip to Washington, DC. "Being black and a teenager of the 1950s, growing up in Long Island, I was usually the only one in the class, the only one in the theater group, the only one [studying to be] a physical therapist, the only one and the only one, and blah blah blah. It became increasingly clear to me that I had a different identity." But while Pruitt always maintained a wall of African artifacts in her home, she did not intensely pursue kente until a work injury forced her to retire prematurely and to seek out clothing that freed the body. "I've always liked bright colors, didn't always wear them, but I liked them," she says. "Wrapped in Pride" follows kente from its origins as the cloth of royalty among the Asante and the Ewe in Ghana, through its transatlantic popularization as a symbol of Black Pride, to its becoming a staple of African-American celebration and an adornment of choice for everyone from Ghanaian Barbie to former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman. Large enough to occupy both the history and art galleries, the exhibition brings the full powers of the modern museum to bear on kente, with photographs and oral histories of its uses in a range of communities, a facsimile of an African marketplace, and a documentary video of weavers at work. "It's one thing to recognize the fabric, but to see how these fabrics are put together is amazing," says Pruitt. Pruitt chairs the museum's fashion show (November 9), one of many events scheduled to complement the exhibit. The show will open with traditional kente wrap, then reveal a range of "New Afrikan" design in kente and other African textiles. "In their beauty, they are also functional," says Pruitt. "I've been to a museum and said, ‘This is beautiful.' But to put this beauty in a dress, and to share it with other people as I'm wearing it, to share it where other people can see it... That's a wonderful thing."

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