Must-see Exhibition: TARTAN – Its Journey Through the African Diaspora

Must-see Exhibition: TARTAN – Its Journey Through the African Diaspora



Which came first – the Shuka or Tartan?

This is a question I’ve asked enthusiasts of the red woven tartan-like shuka fabric that’s very closely associated with the regal Maasai warriors, and is therefore commonly called ‘Maasai fabric’.

Most people I’ve spoken to about this have declared that the shuka fabric developed independently, and was in no way influenced by tartan introduced by Scottish missionaries like David Livingstone who made their way down the Rift Valley spreading Christianity.

This was a question I was curious to finally resolve when I visited Clerkenwell’s Craft Central art gallery and the exhibition organised by the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora entitled, ‘TARTAN – Its Journey Through the African Diaspora’, which is running until this Sunday 30th August.

CIAD is a UK-based resource hub for anyone interested in the garments, accessories, textiles and body adornments from Africa and the African Diaspora and is dedicated to advancing the universal understanding of all aspects of fashion and costume from around the African Diaspora.

The exhibition was very insightful, a visual feast, with an array of costumes on display representing the various geographies and turning points in history along the transition of the hand-woven tartan fabric around the world. Tracing it from the arrival of the Celts to Scotland, through the lowlands of Dumfries, via India and finally to Africa and the Caribbean.

The exhibition showcases a display of Maasai regalia, and describes the introduction of the distinctive striped and checked tartan pattern to the existing heritage shuka fabric by an Indian man named Mr P. D. Dodhia. And so finally, an answer to my long-standing question! Although I’m sure one or two of my friends might dispute this.

The exhibition’s journey continues to South Africa and the Anglo-Zulu war, India and the establishment of the East India Company, and finally the Caribbean where the Madras fabric is used in many of the islands as a basis for their national dress, and shares similarities with Scottish clans in defining national identities by one distinctive pattern.

All-in-all, an enjoyable and stimulating experience, and if you’re in London this weekend, try and stop by. If you can’t, take a look at some of the displays below.



Tartan outfit designed by 15-year old Tianna Jade Small Cruickshank Brown

Models of Maasai traditional shukas



Standing next to a model of a tartan kilt worn by members of the South African Shembe Church


Caribbean Madras outfits – a basis for many island’s national identities, each using a different pattern to represent their peoples.


From Vivienne Westwood’s Gold Label ‘Everything is Connected’ SS14 collection, the fabric hand-woven using traditional weaving methods in Burkina Faso, West Africa.



A close up view of one of the vibrant Caribbean outfits

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