Although woven as flat rectangles, lamba, or woven textiles are anything but stiff fabric or static form. The lamba was and remains a communicator of identity, conveying Malagasy notions of social rank, wealth, age, region and ethnicity. The "vocabulary" of a cloth is read in its design, size, color, decoration, fiber and the way it is arranged on the body. Pulled over the head, it protects against cold weather or hides timidity; wrapped tightly around the body, it shows action and determination. Draped over the shoulder, it conveys messages to an admirer or illustrates a flair for fashion. Given its performative potential, cloth in Madagascar is not just worn--it is displayed.
For Madagascar's Merina women born before 1945, a white shoulder wrap has been an indispensable part of formal dress and feminine attire. In the 1960s, most young urban women refused to take up the shoulder wrap, seeing it as old-fashioned and contrary to an active, career-oriented lifestyle. In the mid-1990s, many of these same women--now journalists, politicians and professors--began adopting the shoulder wrap for the first time. They now consider that wearing the lamba allows them to celebrate and assert their Malagasy identity. Most wear it only on formal occasions or for international events, but others have made it part of their daily dress. Nearly all prefer brightly colored shoulder wraps of more contemporary design. The most popular style in recent years has been the MariMar, a light, loose weave named for the heroine of a Mexican soap opera who captivated television audiences throughout Madagascar in 1999 with her rags-to-riches story.
Shoulder wraps are woven of silk, cotton, synthetic and a combination of these fibers. They may be undyed or brightly colored, depending on the style and current fashion.
This particular wrap was made from mulberry silk and chemically dyed. The weft float designs, woven with a second heddle, produce textiles known as akotofana. In this case, a leaf and stem pattern "floats" over the ground weave. As with most shoulder wraps, this one was made as a single panel of cloth.
Single panel textile [a], with roughly half the cloth a solid medium salmon color. The other half is decorated with colorful striped patterns of red, green, white, purple and yellow, that frame two parallel rows of white colored leaves coming off of long thin stems. The design, called akotofahana, is created using a second heddle. The textile arrived wrapped in a natural fiber mat [b] used as the packing material within which the cloth was rolled.
Acquired from Suzanne Ramananantoandro, Madagascar, 2000
Gifts and Blessings: The Textile Arts of Madagascar Malagasy, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, April 14-September 2, 2002