As an undergrad at San Jose State University, Ziddi Msangi would have had a hard time believing that his interest in the traditional textiles of his African heritage would become a significant academic and artistic pursuit. His proposed independent study project on the patterns of East African garments known as kanga was swiftly rejected by his advising instructor. “I don’t think the teacher understood the importance of kanga, and I couldn’t really articulate what I was trying to do,” Msangi says. “I sort of assumed at that point that it sat outside of my study of graphic design.” 

Yet today, as a professor at The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Vermont College of Fine Arts, Msangi has revisited his interest in the textiles and situated his study of them firmly within his graphic design teaching and practice. His research looks at the kanga as a form of visual communication among the women who wear them.

“Historically, much of the messaging and the production of kangas has been dominated by men. I was really aware of that, so I chose to approach this project by invoking the divine feminine.”

Msangi’s interest returned to kanga patterns while on a sabbatical year, preparing for an exhibition of his own work. Though the show was intended to be a poster exhibit about retracing the narratives that form identity, Msangi switched to designing kanga patterns after a creative writing class encouraged him to examine his personal history. “I kept coming back to the spaces in my childhood and the color of kangas,” he says. “Historically, much of the messaging and the production of kangas has been dominated by men. I was really aware of that, so I chose to approach this project by invoking the divine feminine in a sense, looking at my own subjectivity, and body, and then using them as a vehicle to inject questions around power and the dynamics of power that exist in the world.”

Msangi’s completed exhibition featured half a dozen original kanga designs, some based on traditional patterns while others were more subversive and politically-motivated. But to understand his reinterpretation of the traditional motifs, Msangi says it’s important to understand the historic and cultural significance of kanga.

In a lecture Msangi presented at VCFA that is now available online, he explains that growing up in Tanzania, he saw kangas everywhere. He writes, “Even during the many years my family spent here in the U.S., the kanga was a central part of my mother’s wardrobe. It covered tables at times, as a makeshift tablecloth. It was the wrap she threw on after arriving home from work—a sign of her role as mother and wife to my father. In all my imagery, as I try to recall the sights and spaces of childhood and of East Africa, kangas are present.”

The kanga originated on the island of Zanzibar but the textiles are found in other Swahili-speaking countries like Kenya, Uganda, or Tanzania, of which Zanzibar is now a part. The East African coast was historically a trade route, and that exchange of culture is evident in the diverse range of symbols and motifs found in traditional kanga patterns. Msangi cites cultural anthropologist Phyllis Ressler who writes that “The symbols on kangas can be found in 18th century English wallpaper books, French tapestries, ancient Persian carpets and African ceremonial garments or objects. They can be found in woven cloth from the Middle East, as shapes of local fruits and flowers, and as ancient Indian tie-dye designs. All masterfully woven into a mix of color and life.”

A simplified illustration of a kanga. (1) pindo; (2) mji; (3) jina. The jina of this kanga is Bahati ni upepo sasa upo kwangu, which can be translated as “Luck is like the (blowing of the) wind, now it is on my side”

Made of cotton, kangas are distinguished by a screen-printed or wax-resist patterned border (called a pindo), a central design (called an mji), and a local idiom or Islamic proverb in swahili set as type in a box above the bottom border (the jina). Kangas were often given as gifts among women at weddings or other celebrations and significant milestones. Msangi says that in the hierarchical social structures of East African Muslim communities, women were discouraged from speaking out of turn or engaging in “bad talk” such as gossip. “Kangas are used as a way of circumventing these restrictions,” he explains.

“The fact that women were the population who primarily carried these messages out into the world is also significant, and is a reminder that women are a key constituent in any liberation movement.”

One kanga design on view at the Erie Art Museum in Pennsylvania, for example, contains the message “You can poison romance with too many words.” Women developed a pattern recognition system associated with each unique print, so even if the message on the motif was not in view, women within that specific community would still recognize the subtext in the design.

You can poison romance with too many words.” (In English this translates, “Watch your mouth!”) – 100cm x 150 cm from the Erie Art Museum collection

This covert visual language was also important during Tanzania’s independence movement in the 1960s. Because the British, Tanzania’s colonizers, weren’t aware of the coded meaning in kanga patterns and proverbs, people were able to broadly communicate messages of pro-independence without the fear of being arrested, Msangi explains.

“Kanga was a way for people to communicate directly with others who were part of the independence movement, but [it was] also a way of marking a body with symbols that were pro-independence without the oppressor’s knowledge,” he says. “The fact that women were the population who primarily carried these messages out into the world is also significant, and is a reminder that women are a key constituent in any liberation movement.”

Some of Msangi’s original kanga designs explore aspects of colonialism and revolution. In his piece Ushirikiano wangu atakuja kwa bei or “My cooperation will come at a price,” he illustrates the story of the Carrier Corps, a conscripted African labor force during World War I that served as porters to British soldiers fighting against the German army in East Africa. “The Carrier Corps literally carried the luggage of these European soldiers into battle. I kept thinking about all of these Africans who went abroad, who saw Europeans fighting for independence from tyranny and came back home to ask themselves those same important questions about independence. In a sense, their participation in the British military precipitated the independence movement from colonial Britain.”

Another original design, and a personal favorite, is mwili ni maburudisho tu kama mtu hajui mtu or “The body is just a distraction if one doesn’t know the person,” which depicts a bright orange Kool-Aid man in the center, surrounded by cultural, religious, and political symbols.

“mwili ni maburudisho tu kama mtu hajui mtu” / “the body is just a distraction if one doesn’t know the person” – 100cm x 150 cm from UMass Dartmouth sabbatical show 2011

Originally conceived as a commentary against extremism and the opinions we hold to be absolute truths, Msangi opted instead to turn that commentary inward to confront his own ideologies and convictions after his partner suggested the former iteration was too judgemental.  

“Rather than pointing the finger at other people, I ultimately found it more revealing and impactful to look inward. As a designer, I’ve definitely bought into the cult of Apple. All the symbols I’ve represented here are things I feel strongly about; they’re the ingredients in the ideological Kool-Aid I drink. Whether that’s positive or negative, the Kiswahili message I’ve written on this kanga reminds us to look beyond superficial opinions and subjective truths, and respect the person regardless.”

Msangi’s kanga exhibition debuted in 2011, and since then he’s continued his research in decoding the form and layered meanings of kanga patterns. He plans to return to Tanzania and continue interviewing subjects who participated in the independence movement of the 1960s, an opportunity he never thought would have been possible all those years ago during undergrad.

“So many years later, to finally feel empowered to find my own connection and meaning with this visual language, it adds to the continuum of personal and political messages that have been evolving through kanga for generations,” he says.