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Ulrike Bergermann

The Desire for Appropriation and Histories of the Kanga

Is there something like a copyright for textiles? Textiles, cloth, and patterns represent a central part of many, if not most of the cultures of the African continent – and they have been contested grounds for post_colonial economies and discourses. On the one hand, their 'ownership' often seems unclear to the Western logic, as they 'belong' to a culture or a community; in trying to protect them from corporate uses in the global fashion industry, international organisations put up laws for "cultural property". But on the other hand, more often than not, the textile practices do not fit into these logics of creativity and property. Research has discussed copyrights and the 'Africanicity' of the Westafrican Dutch Wax print, developed out of Indonesian wax prints sold by Dutch colonial merchants, while the kanga from East Africa received much less attention. Most histories of the kanga tell the story of the upper class women from Zanzibar (part of today's Tanzania), who liked the block printed cotton cloth balls sold by Portuguese sailors meant to be used as handkerchiefs. They turned them into a garment of their own, with very distinct features, styles, multimedia-like functions, linked to women's communications and the new Swahili culture after the abolition of slavery at the end of the 19th century. Is that a story of appropriation, that took place within a colonized area, driven by female agencies, developing a style and markets of its own? The paper wants to give a short critical reading of that historiography, looking at the desires (like my own) to read it as self-conscious, autonomous formation, and relate Kawira Mwirichia's kanga series "To Revolutionary Type Love" to these stories: a queer use of a story deeply imbedded in heteronormative, muslim, and colonial cultural practices ¬– connecting new belongings and messages across multiple borders.