Kanga & Kitenge
Clothe and Culture in East Africa

Main Floor Gallery
September 27, 2008 – April 5, 2009

The Erie Art Museum has organized the first North American museum exhibition of East African textiles, focusing on the two main forms of wrap garments, kanga and kitenge. These popular cloths sport bold patterns in bright colors, and—in the case of the kanga—an inscription in Swahili. These garments are stunning in the profusion and variety of patterns, which range from post-modern abstractions to traditional paisleys, and depict subjects as diverse as political and religious figures, architecture, food, animals, plumbing, modes of transportation, and western style clothing. The Swahili inscriptions include proverbs, aphorisms, taunts, and blessings. Kanga and kitenge are worn wherever Swahili is spoken—in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Mozambique, the Congo, and beyond. As ubiquitous as the American t-shirt, but with much higher cultural status, these wrap garments are part of every rite of passage and gift-giving occasion in East African life. These textiles reflect the fascinating history of the Swahili trading empire and its relationship with West Africa, India, Arabia, Europe, and the Americas, and its role in the abolition of slavery. Thanks in part to support from the Coby Foundation and the U.S. State Department, the Erie Art Museum has amassed the largest museum collection of these textiles in the world and Museum staff have researched their history, contemporary use, and manufacturing methods. Of interest to artists, students and fashion mavens alike, the exhibit contains hundreds of varieties to explore, a hands-on dress-up station, and photographs documenting their history and cultural context. To celebrate the exhibit's inauguration, the Museum hosted a Kanga Party on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008.  Learn more about this event and download music.

Sponsored by a grant from The Coby Foundation

Additional communtiy support provided by


Download a powerpoint document showing kanga from the Museum's collection:

Download a powerpoint document showing kitenge from the Museum's collection:

Download a powerpoint document showing how kanga and kitenge are used both past and present:

Download Swahili inscriptions currently on display and their English translations:

Download a template for designing your own kanga on a letter-sized sheet of paper: