From Kente to Kuba

From Kente to Kuba

Stitched Textiles from West and Central Africa

In Africa, fabric is useful, valuable, and symbolic. It speaks to identity, group affiliation, and prestige. It is colorful, patterned, and visible everywhere: at community gatherings, in the marketplace, and in the home. The ubiquity of fabric means that few forms of material culture can compete with it for status. For instance, although sculpture has received more scholarly and popular recognition outside of Africa, art historian Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbeche points out that at home, African textiles such as kente and Kuba cloth are more highly regarded: “These important textiles have a universal recognition that African sculpture can only dream of.” 
 
Although stitched textile techniques such as patchwork, appliqué, and quilting are less common in Africa than weaving, dyeing, and printing, the stitching arts are greatly prized among some ethnic and regional groups. Kente cloth from Ghana is made by sewing long, woven strips together to create large fabrics for garments. Kuba cloth from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a ceremonial raffia fabric constructed using a number of techniques, including patchwork and appliqué. Masquerade costumes from Nigeria feature plentiful stitchwork, and enable villagers to “transform” into spirits during rituals and festivals. Although Africa does not have an indigenous quiltmaking tradition, contemporary Nigerian artisans have developed a new, American-style patchwork bedspread using traditional indigo-dyed adire cloth. 
 
The stitched textiles in this gallery represent an important niche in the rich, ever-evolving world of African textiles.

Stitching Strips

Stitching Strips
Stitching Strips

Strip-weaving is common among various West African ethnic groups. Both the Ashanti and Ewe of Ghana make kente cloth using narrow looms. Weavers, who are mostly male, alternate between weft-faced and  warp-faced sections, and sew these  long strips  of  fabric  together in an offset pattern to create the checkerboard effect for which kente cloth is known. Many strips—usually 16 - 24—are sewn together in order to produce fabrics wide enough for men’s and women’s wrapped and draped garments.

Visually, kente cloth is similar to the American “one patch” quilt pattern, in which same-size squares repeat across the surface of a quilt. In terms of construction, however, kente is more related to strip-piecing, in which long pieces of fabric are sewn together to create a new, larger piece of cloth.

Stitching Spirits

Stitching Spirits
Stitching Spirits

Masquerades are central to Igbo society, and feature costumes, masks, singing, dancing, and storytelling. In addition to providing entertainment and reinforcing community standards through the performance of morality tales, many masquerades create a bridge between the physical and spirit worlds. Igbo   cosmology  does not include a single, all-powerful deity; thus, various nature gods and animal and ancestral spirits are seen as powers to be appealed to for assistance, or even rejected if found to be inadequately helpful. Masquerading brings humans and spirits into contact with one another, helping to keep the two domains in balance.

Stitching Status

Stitching Status
Stitching Status

The Kasai river region of the Democratic Republic of the  Congo is home to a set of ethnic groups known collectively as the Kuba. Traditionally, the Kuba maintained hierarchical societies in which they communicated status through the display of various types of raffia cloth. Although cut-pile velvet is the most  famous type of Kuba cloth, appliqué and patchwork textiles are also common.

Raffia palm leaflets are ideal for harvesting fiber when they are between three and four feet long. For this reason, weavers have generally been limited to creating small panels that could be stitched together to make larger pieces of fabric. Men’s and women’s ceremonial skirts, for example, often run longer than ten feet, and can be made from as many as ten panels. Raffia fabrics can also be cut apart to make pieced and appliquéd shapes. Some of the abstract appliqué forms are thought to be symbolic, but many scholars believe they simply serve the practical purpose of covering up holes in the relatively weak raffia fabrics.

Stitching Quilts

Stitching Quilts
Stitching Quilts

Adire is a traditional indigo-dyed fabric made by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. Artisans—usually women—use a variety of resist methods to achieve their designs: tying, stitching, and painting or stenciling with a starchy cassava paste. After the resist is applied, the fabric is dyed with indigo. When the ties, stitches, or paste are removed, designs are revealed as white or light  blue  patterns against a dark blue background. Adire cloth is often worn by women as a “wrapper”—a large square of cloth tied around the body as a simple skirt or dress.

In recent years, adire fabrics have been used in a new way—to make quilts. In 1988, Nigerian artisan and entrepreneur Nike Okundaye established an art center in Osogbo, Nigeria for teaching traditional handicrafts, and especially adire, which was in danger of dying out. Okundaye introduced American-style quiltmaking so that her students could produce adire items that were attractive to both Nigerians and tourists. Today, these products help artisans make a living through their craftsmanship.

Selected Works

Selected Works

Kente cloth
Ashanti people
c. 1960-1980
Ghana
129” x 68.5”
IQSCM 2018.045.0004

Kente comes from the word kenten, which means “basket.” The Ashanti people also refer to kente as nwentoma or “woven cloth.” Traditionally, kente cloth was made from locally grown cotton, or silk thread recycled from European fabrics traded across the Sahara Desert. Today, kente weavers generally use rayon.

Kente cloth
Ewe people
c. 1950-1970
Ghana
130 x 80.5 inches

Unlike the Ashanti, the Ewe people historically used only cotton in their strip-woven fabrics. Today, like the Ashanti, they often use rayon, and much of their kente cloth is exported for the American market. Kente cloth is often worn by African Americans at special ceremonies such as graduations to mark and celebrate participants’ connections with their cultural homeland.
IQSCM 2018.045.0003

Maiden spirit masquerade costume
Igbo people
c. 1950-1970
Nigeria
IQSCM 2018.045.0009

This Igbo costume takes the form of the agbogho-mmuo, or “maiden spirit.” Decorated with brightly colored appliqué shapes, the maiden spirit generally features cloth breasts and a protruding navel, which indicate the maiden’s maturity and status.

The costume was worn with an elaborate mask and headdress, and by a man, since traditionally, only men were allowed to perform masquerade. Maiden spirits frequently enacted dances and stories that strengthened notions of female purity and virtuousness.

Adire cloth quilt
Yoruba people
c. 1990-2000
Nigeria
98 x 88 inches
IQSCM 2008.040.0230

The predominant motif in this quilt’s adire cloth is a spiral—a loose depiction of a snake, which is symbolic of the Yoruba belief in reincarnation, or the cyclical nature of life.

Selected Works

Featured Media

Featured Media
Featured Media
Support for this exhibition has been provided by Friends of International Quilt Study Center & Museum and the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.nebraskaartscouncil.org for more information.
Event Date
Friday, December 7, 2018 to Sunday, May 12, 2019