Kuba Cloth – Past and Present

The Democratic Republic of Congo has a long history of its own and also has tales to tell from when it was colonized and also inhabited by missionaries. It was not always a peaceful meeting of cultures, but the locals came through the other side with a lot to be proud of and one of the most important things was their ability to manufacture cloth from raffia. The Kuba people have also had an amazing impact on other important designers such as Gustave Klimt and many of the items can be seen in the display that is dedicated to 19th and 20th Century African textiles.

The exhibition

There are 41 pieces to be seen and the Kuba cloth items were worn as skirts that were long and wrapped around the body. Most would have been worn by the rich or royalty when there was a special occasion. Not all items are cloth, as the opening piece of art is Mishe miShyaang maMbul the 18th Century King. The Bushoong were the people responsible for producing the cloth, thanks to the production of raffia palm from which they made their cloth as well as building items and wine.

Cloth manufacture

The first skirts were made on simple looms where a rough cloth was produced and these looms were unique to the Kuba People. This was then beaten to smooth linen before the entire workforce working on it to add the distinctive designs including:

  • Embroidery
  • Patchwork
  • Appliqué
  • Cut pile.

Nowadays a Kuba cloth pillow can be made with the same designs.  

Color and design

There were ways to add color to the cloth and this enabled the tribe to tie dye their cloth. Red was one of the main colors and it was harvested from the camwood tree. There were many patterns and abstract designs used; it can be seen that there were many Western artists and designers influenced by the work. Many Kuba cloth pillows are made with designs that tell a story about the history of the producer and will help to keep alive the memory of an ancestor.

Kuba business acumen

The Kuba are aware of the value of Kuba cloth and Kuba cloth pillows. As far back as the early 1900s, they have been using photography as a way to show their wares to the rest of the world. It was an ideal way to get the elaborate items to be seen. The wearers in the photographs tend to be royalty and clearly if the cloth is good enough for the African royals it will be good enough for the rest of the worlds rich and regal.

Current times

Now it is possible to order these items online and own a piece of well-designed Kuba cloth or Kuba cloth pillows. It is unfair to the weaver in the Congo to liken the items they are producing to the work of Picasso when it is clearly the other way around. He took his inspiration from the outstanding Kuba cloth that has been produced for centuries.