Aso Oke: Prestige Cloth from Nigeria at the Saint Louis Art Museum

    By: Paul Langdon

    The Saint Louis Art Museum’s Aso Oke: Prestige Cloth from Nigeria exhibition, on display in the Carolyn C. and William A. McDonnell Gallery 100, is a unique look at textiles created by Yoruba weavers in southwestern Nigeria. This distinct textile work consists of woven strips, roughly three inches wide, that can be extended for as long as the craftsperson wants to continue weaving. The variable sizes that this fabric can reach makes it perfect for any number of applications, but it’s traditionally been used in clothing for celebrations and ceremonial occasions.

    The materials that make up the foundation of aso oke, which can be observed in the many pieces within this exhibition, include an undyed raw silk called sanyan, the magenta-dyed silk alaari, and the indigo colored etu.

    “For Yoruba people aso oke is a quintessential Yoruba cloth,” says Nichole N. Bridges, Morton D. May Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and Curator of African Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “This exhibition features cloth from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century and because it focuses on the primary color pallet it’s actually a very dated look at aso oke. But aso oke continues to be made and produced today. And there are many Nigerian Yoruba people in our community in St. Louis who I hope will visit the exhibition and maybe even come to the museum in 21st century aso oke.”

    While the art of aso oke remains integral to Yoruba culture and has evolved with time, this selection offers an interesting look at the history and versatility of the craft. The oldest example on display is a cloth comprised of palm fiber, which sets it apart from the more common silk works. And perhaps the most striking piece on show is a contemporary painting by Nengi Omuku entitled Mar Loj, depicting a group of cotton spinners in Senegal. Omuku also uses authentic aso oke cloth as her canvas for the piece, providing the viewer with a thought-provoking work themed around the textiles of West Africa.

    “The research is inconclusive about when aso oke began to be woven in southwestern Nigeria, but strip weaving in West Africa dates for centuries,” explains Bridges. “There are archeological examples of strip weaving found in Mali in West Africa that date to about 900. So, we know that strip weaving is a very quintessential West African textile form.”

    Visitors to the Saint Louis Art Museum can view Aso Oke: Prestige Cloth from Nigeria for free through March 10, 2024. To learn more about this and other exhibitions please visit