Wednesday, 28 June 2017

New Acquisition: Iraqw skirt

Iraqw skirt collected by Elizabeth Porter 2017.139.1
I recently accessioned a beautiful beaded skirt from Tanzania. The skirt was donated to the Museum back in 2015 by Elizabeth Porter. Elizabeth lived in Karatu in the Arusha region of Tanzania in the 1990’s. Having watched young girls wearing such skirts during an initiation ceremony an Iraqw woman offered to make Elizabeth a skirt to buy. This is now one of two Iraqw skirts in the Museum’s collections. The other skirt is older, acquired by Samuel P. Powell when he was in Tanzania and loaned to the Pitt Rivers in 1940. The earlier skirt is more richly decorated however, despite the initiation rituals associated with the skirt being rarely practiced today the tradition of making these skirts prevail and whilst the handmade nature of the skirts ensure that no two skirts are the same similarities can be found. Prominent colours of beading in both skirts are red, white and blue, though the colour palette has expanded in the later skirt. This is most likely because seed beads of different colours became more available. The skirts, given the skill and time required to make them, anywhere between 6 months to a year during seclusion as part of the Marmo ritual, were traditionally saved for special occasions and ceremonial wear. Young girls took great pride in the making of their skirts and the finished product displayed the individuals high level of skill and artistic design, it also acted as a sign of wealth. Some skirts were so heavily beaded that they could weigh up to 40 pounds or more.

Iraqw skirt collected by Samuel P. Powell 1940.7.0114
Iraqw skirts are rare in Museum collections and to have two at the PRM is a real privilege. It is a great opportunity for comparison and demonstrates the importance of contemporary collecting. The tradition of embroidering hide skirts among the Iraqw has continued, whilst the original context for making them has disappeared. The symbolic meanings behind the shapes and patterns embroidered on the skirts are largely unknown however, they remain important material culture for understanding Iraqw society.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator