African Arts: Origin of the Kuba Cloth

Here’s the thing about fashion. You never really know when it is going to change and it often becomes quite hard to keep in touch with all the artistic innovations and technological progress being made. In the meantime, while you are still busy with catching up to the rat race, the native people of Kuba in Zaire ( now Congo) bring the highest form of craftsmanship to the forefront to create the one of a kind Kuba Cloths and textiles. Being the seasoned style diva like you are, you would probably be wondering what is so great about the Kuba Cloth that you are being asked to concern yourself with its making process.

Let us tell you the story behind how the Kuba Cloth originated and the level of detail plus craftsmanship required to in producing each piece of textile. Perhaps then, will you appreciate this old tradition yet a masterful piece of art from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Well, to start at the beginning, the people of Kuba have always been a multi-ethnic group with numerous social strata dividing them into approximately eighteen subgroups. What happened as a result of this group formation was that these natives centered their lives around a rich cultural environment in which sophistication of skill combined with the eccentricity of their designs to come up with beautiful patterns not only in textiles but also in architecture, carved belongings, basketry and even in the scarification of the feminine body. Though most of these art forms kept on becoming subdued in the modern age, the beauty of the Kuba Cloth retained its charm for all the Westerners who seemed to be acquainted with it. Asymmetrical with a touch of equilibrium, bold yet classy, subdued yet remarkable, a Kuba Cloth is all about trying to create a perfect harmony out of all the chaos that resides outside.

The creation of the Kuba Cloth takes under its wing the labor of the men, women and even the children of the Kuba clan so you should know that the finished product you will be buying has a lot of history associated with it. First and foremost, the leaves from the raffia trees are cut into strips, and then the fibers are gathered and prepared to be weaved and embroidered. The assembled fibers are stripped employing a stripping comb and are carefully secured individually in a loom. Since the natural length of the fiber is usually about 26” to 28”, the basic cloth units are also of the same size. The ends are secured by hemming them and are softened and made ready to use by drenching them in water or by a pounding session with mortar.

However, in this context, it must be remembered that not all groups cut the cloth in following the rule of thumb and the length, breath and even the thickness of the Kuba Cloth might vary based on the group which is manufacturing it. Like other groups which don’t have access to the verbal form of art, the Kuba people too are in the habit of telling stories through the symbols on the Kuba Cloth that they are manufacturing. A Kuba textile you possess thus acts as a kind of pathway into a world of mysticism where every pattern shelters some hidden meaning beneath itself. As the people keep on creating complex stories, the patterns also keep on becoming more exquisite by the minute.

Next, it goes to a series of embellishments, appliqué, patchwork and dyeing procedures to bring alive the patterns which are immediately evocative of Africa and it’s long lasting art and craftsmanship tradition.

Interesting, isn’t it? We bet you couldn’t have imagined that a mere piece of Kuba Cloth could have had such a complex and thought-provoking origin!