Transfer of custody
Victoria and Albert Museum
Purchase, Rogers Fund and William B. Goldstein Gift, 1999
274.3 cm (height)
178.1 cm (width)
Production time
Production place
Type of object


This contemporary creation represents a revival of a precolonial textile tradition developed by Merina weavers on the island of Madagascar. In the nineteenth century, the royal court and aristocracy of the ruling Merina people of the central highlands used elaborately patterned silk textiles, known as lamba akotofana, During that period, King Radama I introduced the Chinese silkworm to the island. Just as silk was associated with the emperor and with Christianity in Ethiopia, in Madagascar it was identified with royalty and immortality. Given its strength and durability, it was conceived of as especially suited for apparel for the afterlife. Such costly cloths were worn by members of the elite on important occasions as marks of status. They were also drawn upon for the outer layer of fabric wrapped around notable ancestors as second burial shrouds.The Merina and Betsileo people are the main silk weavers in Madagascar. Until recently weaving was a female vocation. In order to weave bands of complex pattern, Merina weavers adapted their looms to include one or more supplementary heddles suspended above. Each of these could then be manipulated to produce a band of pattern floating across the warp of the textile. Many of these patterns are derived from local trees and flowers. Predominant among them are believed to be variations on "The Tree of Life" motif.During the colonial period, patronage of such works by the local aristocracy gradually came to an end. In recent years an innovative group of weavers from the town of Arivonimano, near the capital Antananarivo, have studied historical works conserved in the collection of The British Museum as a point of departure for renewal of their heritage. Among them is the master weaver Martin Rakotoarimanana who produced this work for display. It is not a literal replica of a historical prototype but rather an inspired departure that reflects the same demanding mastery of the medium achieved in the nineteenth century.