About the Author: Bob Soppelsa serves as a Curator for Art in Embassies.
Dress, hairstyle, headdress, veils, and body ornamentation reveal and conceal the identity of individuals in interesting and complex ways. As I planned the Art in Embassies exhibition for Abidjan, my conversation with Ambassador Nesbitt led to observations about personal appearance and the symbols that shape perceptions in cultures around the world. We sat amidst bookshelves lined with art publications and promotional booklets sorting through the meaning woven into every object a person selects to create his own image. Is there a meaning beyond the surface appearance?
For example, the deep-blue indigo-dyed strip-weave fabrics that appear everywhere in Cote d'Ivoire are traditionally the product of a collaboration between dyers, who are Dyula, and weavers, who are Baule. Thus, a traditionally northern, Muslim group and a traditionally southern, animist or Christian group, have been in cooperative contact for hundreds of years. Though many who wear the fabric may not know it, the product alone symbolizes a cultural and economic partnership.
I selected the quilts of American artist Clairan Ferrono for inclusion in the Art in Embassies exhibition because they are reminiscent of these African weavings. The pieced rectangular patterns and deep blue overall color provide a connection with the culture of Cote d'Ivoire while representing the American tradition of preserving scraps of worn cloth through piecing and re-dying. The artist spoke about the power of color. "Color comes first; it is the motivating force. Finding and creating patterns is next: the rhythm of things. What happens when seemingly unrelated elements come together? What happens when things are placed in series? What is the one thing that must stand alone? And what is the meaning, the kernel of the story, the emotional heart?"
We invite the people of Cote d'Ivoire to decide.