Exhibition - Wearing What Cannot Be Spoken

Sunday, Jun 7, 2020


This online exhibition features the research of Rose Ong'oa (pictured below), an Arkansas State University Heritage Studies PhD student. It was originally mounted at Arkansas State University Museum in honor of Black History Month (February 2008).

This exhibition highlights the struggle of Swahili women, of slave descent, to cope with the challenges that have faced them since the abolition of slavery in East Africa in the late 19th century to the present. The lifestyle of the Swahili set them apart as a distinct African ethnic group as early as the 12th century; they lived in stone houses as opposed to the mud houses of other African peoples, they professed Islam, and owned slaves.

Due to Swahili's long-standing social and political position, the British colonial government, in post abolition East Africa, favored members of the Swahili society, reserving certain types of rights only to members of this society. To access such rights, ex-slave women claimed Swahili identity, which entailed the command of Kiswahili language, and adherence to Islamic tenets. They created physical manifestations of their Swahili identity in their kanga clothing and managed to assert the legitimacy of the identity. In contemporary Swahili society, women continue to use kanga to challenge social, religious, and political ideals within their society.

This exhibition presents kanga--a type of cloth worn by women of Zanzibar in East Africa to assert their claim to Swahili identity and express socially taboo opinions in an acceptable manner.

Kanga was originally a plain white cloth imported from the United States in the 19th century. Worn by slaves in the US, it initially served the same purpose on the East African coast.

After the abolition of East African slavery in 1897, women sought to distance themselves from their slave past and align themselves with the freeborn Swahili. Boldly asserting a right to participate in Swahili society, they adopted the Moslem faith, learned Kiswahili (the language of the Swahili people), and began hand-painting their clothing with designs and proverbs long favored by free Swahili women.