Artistry and Power on Display: Ceremonial Ndop Cloths of the Cameroon Grassfields

Janet Marion Purdy, PhD, Associate Curator of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, May 18, 2024

12pm ET @ Zoom

In the Grassfields region of central Africa, rulers have used indigo-dyed cloth as a ceremonial backdrop to set a royal stage for more than a century. Ndop, as it is most commonly known, conveys messages of power, wealth, and cultural artistry through its symbols, color, age, size, and placement. Displayed behind the king during specific events (ceremonies, mourning), it attests to his power over the earth and other men. Like many African textiles, the blue and white royal cloth is a form of communication. Its designs and visual imprint continues to convey messages in its contemporary uses and contexts, and also as the central part of a narrative based in a long, storied, and shifting regional history. Ndop cloth serves as a prestige object, but also as an economic, historical, political, cultural, social, and artistic marker.

Located in present-day Cameroon, the Grassfields are home to approximately 200 independent monarchies, many of which date to the seventeenth century or earlier. Each kingdom is governed by a primary ruler (the fon) and distinguished by its own cultural heritage, origin story, and language. Artistic patronage for the royal courts, elites, and international markets has remained a constant aspect and focus of each cultural group and kingdom, markedly linked to their identities.

This talk will review the complex and restricted processes that governed the historical production of ndop cloth for Grassfields rulers—the course of which moved the cloth along a path to different groups of artisans that would have covered approximately 1,500 miles—as well as distinct motifs, symbolism, and the different uses of the iconic cloths from late nineteenth century to today.

Janet Marion Purdy, PhD is Associate Curator in Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago and Lecturer in the Department of Art History at University of Chicago. An art historian specializing in the traditional arts and architecture of Africa, she focuses on the East African diaspora, especially the western Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula. She is especially interested in the transmission of symbolic imagery and talismanic designs in their diverse protective functions across different mediums including textiles, metalwork, jewelry, and architecture. Janet was a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania (2018-2019), followed by a three-year appointment as the Mellon-Rice Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Arts of Africa at the Art Institute (2020-2023) and has taught courses in art history at Cleveland State University, The Pennsylvania State University, Saint Louis University, and University of Chicago.

Janet was co-curator of African Brilliance: A Diplomat’s Sixty Years of Collecting at the Palmer Museum of Art (2020) and assistant curator for At Home In Africa: Design, Beauty, and Pleasing Irregularity in Domestic Settings at Galleries at Cleveland State University (2014). Publications include catalogue entries in African Brilliance (2020) and Speaking of Objects: Arts from Africa at the Art institute of Chicago (2020) and “Carved Designs and Thresholds in Indian Ocean Visual Affinities” in Verge: Studies in Global Asias (2022), and “The Great Mosque of Kilwa: An Architectural Lodestone” in The Routledge Companion to Global Renaissance Art (2024).

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