Ah, the Kuba Cloth.
What comes to mind when you hear ‘Kuba’? All that circulates in my mind is the ‘exotic’, ‘fine weave’, or ‘tropical’. But you see, anything created from the Garden of Eden, - Africa; is a masterpiece of art and craftsmanship passed down for generations... the identity of a people.
As we celebrate love this month, we are reminded of the ties that brought African communities together, a basis that formed social groups and classified people for their expertise, providing a means for transmitting status, craftsmanship and property from generation to generation. Just like love has its ways of manifesting, this is one of them, deeply rooted in the heart of Africa’s Congo, formerly known as the Republic of Zaire, home of the second largest rainforest in the world, and the deepest river on the globe. Just imagine this beautiful landscape.
Here are 3 Kuba Cloth secrets you didn’t know so well…
- Deep Original Meaning
The art of the Kuba is one of the most highly developed of all African traditions, and significant cultural accomplishments are part of their heritage. Well… drawing back to the 17th century in the Kuba kingdom of central Africa, in what was one of the largest kingdoms in Africa, the Kuba cloth was born.
This woven fabric formed the basis of the ceremonial dress for royalty and thereby expressing status of wealth, hierarchy and personal states of transition.
They were traditionally made from raffia palm leaves strands that were tightly woven in elaborate, geometric designs.
Think of the intricate knowledge of the art and spirit that they must have possessed to create patterns that work of art, aligned in an almost illusionist way, almost like a puzzle, as is the beauty of African art. Each design element of the Kuba cloth carried in-depth meaning and represented the wearer’s status, as well as, characteristics. Keep in mind the fact that this cloth existed centuries ago, and had patterns that told stories of the rise and fall of this powerful society that once controlled the trade of ivory and rubber in Africa.
- Gender had a Role in Creation
When it comes to Africa, always remember that no one piece of art is exactly alike. That is vital in explaining the levels of class and mastery that existed in Africa. Just like today’s gender roles are melting and merging across the fabric of our existence, the men and women in Africa were fully involved in creating this masterpiece.
Pottery and embroidery were arts practiced by women, whereas sculpture and weaving were male activities. Tasks were divided across gender lines. Men were responsible for cultivating the raffia and weaving the cloth. All the decorative designs integrated to the finished base cloth are done by women. This includes connecting individual raffia cloth panels, appliqué, patchwork, dyeing and embroidery.
So basically, Men produced the cloth on inclined, single-heddle looms and then used it to make their clothing and to supply foundation cloth to female members of their clan section. And who said the modern man can’t weave and knit?
- There is more than ONE Kuba cloth style
Just like no one piece of art is alike, the same principle applies to the textiles that constitute the Kuba cloth tapestry. As we have seen how it is made in a latter article we put up, it is to be acknowledged that they are of woven and dyed raffia palm fronds and feature hypnotic geometric designs mostly in shades of black and tan. In some, the designs are stitched; in others, serpentine cutouts are appliquéd onto a raffia backing. Some are 20 feet long and meant to be worn as a wrapped unisex skirt; others are 2-foot-square panels meant to be hung on display behind a royal throne back in 17th century Zaire. Here are the four variations of the Kuba cloth.
a) The embroidered cloths
They may be divided into three types: cut pile embroideries, uncut embroideries and cut or open work embroideries. The cut pile embroideries look like velvet or velour and have been referred to as "Kasai Velvets" or "Kuba Velours".
b) Patchwork cloths
Patchwork cloths often are patterned similarly to applique cloths, but with a seemingly negative pattern image. These patchwork patterns are created by cutting and removing areas of the base cloth, thereby creating a pattern of holes which are patched on the front or back surface with raffia of the same shape.
Patches are secured to the ground cloth with an interlocked hem and embroidery stitch. Some patchwork cloth is created from small squares of raffia and again joined together with an interlocked hem and embroidery stitch. Elaborate patchwork cloths are created with alternating squares of dyed and undyed raffia which are sometimes decorated with embroidered patterns.
c) Applique cloths
The applique technique again begins with the individual cloth unit to which raffia pattern elements are secured with an embroidery stitch in single or double rows around the perimeter of each. These cloths seem more random in pattern than the embroidered cloths.
More freedom of pattern placement is possible because the pattern elements are not an integrated part of the weave but instead are one layer of raffia cloth placed on top of another. Cut out appliques are a common variation which use the applique technique. Here, positive negative illusion is created by large and sometimes intricately cut out sections of raffia that are embroidered to the base cloth.
d) Dyed cloths
This technique of cloth production includes the tie dyed cloths upon which overall patterns composed of undyed raffia set against a dyed background are created. Tie dying and the dying of cane stitched tightly to the cloth are techniques which were used.
They dyed with twool, a deep red substance obtained from the heartwood of the tropical trees Pterocarpus sp. and Baphia pubescens; which are redwood and camwood trees respectively. The Kuba believed that twool is imbued with magical and protective properties. Traditionally dyes are created by natural materials, red from sandalwood or camwood, yellow form the brimstone tree, black from vegetable sources and mud... and white from kaolin, a mineral.
Today, the Kuba cloth is being used to decorate the interiors and exteriors of homes, a perfect wabisabi balance that merges in every environment it is placed in. Perfectly imperfect in nature as it is a creation of mother nature herself. Kuba cloth pillows especially have become a huge hit in homes, hotels, lounges, restaurants, cafes, and many more aesthetic spaces across the globe.
Africa is full of secrets and magical forests with trees known to heal 40 illnesses. Deep rivers and grand rainforests, massive lakes and undeterred birdlife. Being the cradle of humanity makes Africa stand out… in her natural way of life, her people, her arts, her deep culture.
In the words of George Schaller,
“To witness that calm rhythm of life revives our worn souls and recaptures a feeling of belonging to the natural world.”