Very rare indeed: a Malawian dance garment

Witchy tale

In 1936, the Dominion Museum was given a gift so rare and strange that it made the news.  Described in the Auckland Star and in museum records as a “witch doctor’s outfit”, the garment was subsequently displayed for many years in the Buckle St building that opened that same year.

GH024606. Dance garment, c. 1900, Malawi (Chewa culture), Photograph by Kate Whitley. Copyright Te Papa MA_I.374711

GH024606. Dance garment, c. 1900, Malawi (Chewa culture), Photograph by Kate Whitley. Copyright Te Papa MA_I.374711

 

During an ongoing survey of Te Papa’s International History collection, I closely examined this item to make a record of its condition, materials, manufacturing techniques, and storage requirements.  While the garment is rare, there are others in museum collections to which it can be compared to help understand more about it.

Monkeys’ tails

According to the label, the “cape” was collected in Nyasaland, a British colony that became Malawi upon independence in 1964 .  The garment is described on the label as being made up of monkey’s tails.

GH024606, label attached to garment. Photographed by A. Peranteau. Copyright Te Papa.

GH024606, label attached to garment. Photographed by A. Peranteau. Copyright Te Papa.

 

However, the shape and colouration of the fur and skins is so diverse that I suspect a wide variety of mammals have been incorporated. Perhaps only one of the strips of skin has a shape consistent with that of a tail, otherwise whole pelts have been slashed so as to curl into tassel shapes.  The examples C and D below appear to be from either a genet or a serval.   Any specialists on the wildlife of Malawi out there are invited to contribute their best guesses.

GH024606, detail of skins used to make the garment. Image copyright Te Papa.

GH024606, detail of skins used to make the garment. Image copyright Te Papa.

 

One way to learn more about the types of skins used is to look at the details of the scale patterning on the fiber exterior (cuticle) as well as the interior space (or medulla) of the hairs.  Two hairs were taken from the portion of the garment that most resembles a monkey’s tail (the image below shows several vervet monkeys, common to Malawi)

Images of hair fibers removed from GH024606 showing exterior scale patterning and the structure of the interior. Images by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

Images of hair fibers removed from GH024606 showing exterior scale patterning and the structure of the interior. Images by A. Peranteau, copyright Te Papa.

 

Most often this tells you what a fiber is not, rather than being conclusive about what it is, especially in the absence of samples of known identity to which the unknowns can be compared–perhaps not surprisingly, Te Papa does not have a large collection of southern African mammal specimens.   But thanks to the marvellous and handy Guide to the Identification of Animal Fibers (H.M. Appleyard, copyright 1978, British Textile Technology Group) there are reference images of hairs just about anything you can make a fur coat out of.   Using fiber “C” an example, the images I took, when compared to reference images, suggest that this stripy bushy tail is likely to be that of a genet.

Hair fibers from each respective sampled area, GH024606; shown at 200x magnification. Image copyright Te Papa.

Hair fibers from each respective sampled area, GH024606; shown at 200x magnification. Image copyright Te Papa.

 

A fair question might be, why does it matter what animals were used?  From a materials preservation point of view, it does not, since the chemistry of their deterioration is identical.  However, in our anthropocene age, artifacts made with materials sourced from the natural environment may one day be significant as being records of those species that no longer exist.

Beaded decoration

A secondary smaller component of the outfit, labelled a “sporran”, has a large decorative ball at the top, made of grass or leaf fibres interlaced like a basket to enclose the internal wadding, and covered with glass trade beads.  The beadwork is an example of peyote stitch, a technique also used in Native American and Zulu beaded items.  Peyote stitch results in alternate rows of beads being laterally offset from one another and enables the beads to more densely cover an object.  Glass beads were exchanged with Europeans in Southern Africa beginning in the 16th century.

GH024605, dance attire, c. 1900, Malawi (Chewa culture). Detail of beaded component. Photographed by A. Peranteau. Copyright Te Papa.

GH024605, dance attire, c. 1900, Malawi (Chewa culture). Detail of beaded component. Photographed by A. Peranteau. Copyright Te Papa.

 

Dance traditions

A similar pair of objects, dating to c. 1900, are in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland (listed as a “sporran” and “kilt” in their records) .  This type of garment may be associated with the Chewa people of Malawi and were worn by men of the Nyau society in Gule Wamkulu performance.  This tradition is still practiced today and recognized by Unesco as important traditional performing arts heritage.   The Angoni, also of Malawi, also wore skin garments, so the Te Papa garment may have origins in that culture (see comments below by Dr. Andrew Tracey).  The girdle and “sporran” would likely have been worn together with a mask or headdress, enabling the dancer to assume a role in the dance.  The animal skins and fur-covered cloth wrappings present along the top edge would also impart potency to the garment and status to its wearer.  The newspaper article cited in this post alludes to a “headdress” being part of the bequest but this has not yet been surveyed.

Sadly, the garment has previously suffered extensive pest grazing and sheds frass (insect excrement) each time it is moved. However, because of the number of skins used, this does not detract from its overall effect.  There has been no recent pest activity, and treatment can be undertaken to clean and stabilise the damage if the garment is to be displayed in the future.   Some of the skins are damaged and almost detached from the rest of the garment, so treatment would also address making these more secure.  In the meantime, current storage conditions are optimal for its long term safety.

8 Responses

  1. Moretta Balai

    Interesting ..how many monkey tails took to make ?
    A cape one that is featured in this article.

    Reply
  2. Andrew Tracey, Prof. Emeritus

    The website of the International Library of African Music, Rhodes University, my former institute, is http://www.ilam.ru.ac.za. Without your clue that the costume was used in the Nyau dance of the Cewa in Malawi I would certainly have placed it as part of the costume of the Ngoma dance of the Angoni people of southern Malawi and into Zambia and Mozambique. It would have been called ‘isinene’ in Zulu, the parent language and culture of the Angoni, i.e. a sporran worn by men in front to cover their genitals in dance and formal occasions. -Nene is a Zulu adjective meaning right, proper, decent. Your description didn’t mention size. The Angoni wear theirs particularly long, 1 1/2 ft or more, and the whole heavy costume for the slow stamping Ngoma dance includes many other dangling animal skins. On the other hand, I have seen Nyau and don’t remember anything of heavy animal skins on the dancers who are light, vigorous and athletic, responding to changing drum rhythms, and would be encumbered by such a sporran.
    The bead ball with its Peyote stitch would be unremarkable in Zulu or Xhosa culture in South Africa. I hope this sheds light.

    Reply
    • Anne Peranteau

      Dear Dr. Tracey,
      I am so honoured that the blog post caught your attention; your comments are much appreciated. ILAM is a fantastic resource and your background and expertise in African dance and music are truly impressive. As I mentioned in my message to you the attribution is based on field research (not mine! unfortunately) and the provenance of some similar examples held by another museum combined with the “witch doctor” assignation of this one. Do the Angoni have a tradition of a healing dance? I have edited the above to include the possibility of what you describe so that the attribution is a bit more circumspect. Our garment has a maximum length of about 40 cm. Best regards and thanks again.

    • Andrew Tracey, Prof. Emeritus

      The comment got away from me early… I was saying that ILAM is just an archive, meaning that it’s the people who run it who know how to share the knowledge. It is currently suffering from lack of finance and thus of expertise. I am lucky to have been able to witness music in parts of southern Africa. My comment was based on the resemblance of your object with the ‘sporrans’ which are part of Zulu and Ngoni dance costume. I don’t know if the Angoni have a ‘healing dance’ as such, but they do have diviner/healers like their parents the Zulu. And diviners usually dance, usually on their own, not as a group dance with drums like their neighbours in the region. Sorry, that’s about the extent of what I can add! Good luck with your researches!

  3. Adele Pentony-Graham

    Monkey’s tails… I can remember when my relations lived in East Africa in the 1940-50 they used to send us presents over to London where we lived as children, bags made out of skins, still have a purse today from one of the gifts.. think of all the shoes they made out of skins and handbags….

    Reply
  4. Sarah

    We have a monkey skin rug, presumably vervet monkeys, that my great Aunt was gifted in Sudan in 1950s. We had previously offered to Auckland Museum but was told they have no interest in artifacts from outside Pacific. Would Te Papa want this?

    Reply
  5. Alison Barwick

    Fascinating.

    fiber?
    comprising of?

    Reply
    • Anne Peranteau

      Thanks Alison for your comments I’m glad you found it of interest.

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