A Legend is Born
Africa has long been blessed with the creative and artistic excellence of its different people. Kuba cloth is unique to the artistic Kuba people, one of the many tribes that made up the Kuba kingdom, which flourished between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).
The Kuba Kingdom was founded in about 1625, and there were over 18 different tribes who enjoyed the security and harmony the kingdom offered. Each of the tribes had its own identity and traditions; however, they were united by their common Bantu ancestry and shared cultural values.
The inclusive diversity of the Kuba Kingdom brought about political stability in the region as well as great economic and artistic achievements. Kuba people are known for their basketry and perhaps for the scarification body art of the women, but above all, Kuba cloth is what defines these remarkably artistic people.
The Kuba Kingdom’s control over the ivory trade accumulated immense wealth for the royalty within the kingdom, leading to an explosion of artistic expression in Kuba cloth colors and designs.
Kevin Tervala, the associate curator of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art (United States), sent samples of Kuba cloth to New Zealand to have their carbon dated. If anything, he would be able to place the pieces on a timeline so he could follow the storyline of the different Kuba cloth patterns in their exhibition. What he discovered was quite stunning because the earliest Kuba cloth patterns were barely visible. In contrast, the later patterns were bold and intricate, eccentric and harmonious, dramatic yet subdued. The changes can be attributed to the desire and need for power and status within the kingdom.
Kuba cloth, as well as sculptures, masks and beadwork, were commissioned by royalty and either worn or prominently displayed on ceremonial occasions. Historians cannot be certain if the patterns on the Kuba cloth actually carried a message or had a significant meaning because these historical facts have been diluted through time. It is presumed that because the tribes in the kingdom were autonomous, each would have placed a different significance on the many patterns they created.
Some historians believe that each design or pattern carried great significance for the wearer, a common trait in most traditional African textile designs and patterns. The patterns carry a strong visual message that defines a person’s status and standing within the community.
The earliest Kuba cloth piece in the Baltimore Museum exhibition dates back to the mid-1700s and was created with a single color, now a faded blood red with a repetitive triangle pattern around the border. Later patterns become bolder, mostly black and tan, and here again, the patterns are repetitive and give a sense of flow to the cloth.
Royalty in the Kuba Kingdom flamed the evolution of Kuba cloth designs by investing heavily in Kuba cloth wardrobes to portray their wealth and status to their subjects and outsiders. There were constant comparisons of what designs were the best and most pleasing to the eye. Within each tribe, the significance and meaning of the design would have differed. Yet, there would have been a central theme of the time incorporated into the designs. In contemporary times one need only see the fuss made about outfits worn to any of the annual horse racing events to get an idea of what the kings and royalty in the Kuba Kingdom were faced with. The best and most significant designs were always reserved for the king while other designs filtered down to his subjects.
By the mid to late 1800s, Belgium colonizers focused on the abundance of rubber in the Congo region, which created a new threat to the kingdom. It sparked the necessity to portray power and authority more than ever within the kingdom, which meant bolder Kuba cloth designs. The visualization of power and authority was paramount to the kings. As the colonizers applied pressure on the indigenous people, the visualization increased in urgency and importance.
The Kuba Kingdom resisted colonization much longer than other parts of Belgium Congo. At the turn of the 20th century, the kingdom gradually opened up to trading with Europe. But this was only after the Belgium administration had changed to a more bureaucratic dispensation.
Despite robust trade, the Kuba people did not invest in European fabrics but rather maintained their loyalty to Kuba cloth as it carried traditional significance.
From that point, Kuba cloth or textiles became a sought-after commodity. Market demands remain high and especially after the DRC gained independence in 1960. Kuba patterns have mesmerized many famous people throughout history. The French painter Henri Matisse kept a few Kuba cloth pieces in his studio and was utterly fascinated by their instinctive geometry.
Kuba cloth is made from the leaf of the raffia tree or palm, which is cut into strips and woven together to create the fabric. Each sub-group of the Kuba people have their own unique way of preparing and weaving the fabric, with some opting for different weave lengths and thicknesses.
Because Kuba cloth became brittle over time with use as well as the hot, humid climate of the Congo, the need to patch holes became necessary. The patches or raffia cloth flow with the base pattern, but often, patches will add meaning to the underlying message of the original pattern. The addition of patches led to patterns being uniquely arranged to tell a story.
It is the duty of the men to gather young fresh leaves, cut, and dye them using vegetable and mineral dyes. The Camwood tree is used for red, brimstone tree for yellow, mud, charcoal, and various plants for black and brown, while white is derived from clay. They will soften the fibres by rubbing them in their hands before weaving the fabric. A loom set at 45 degrees is used to weave the fabric, and the weaver sits beneath the loom and weaves with his hands above his head. The loom is only used for raffia and not any other yarn.
Women use sophisticated embroider,appliqué, and other techniques to finish the cloth, which is very time-consuming. Interestingly, the embroidery of patterns is done mostly from memory. The cut pile embroider technique gives the cloth a unique velvet-like appearance, showing just how effective the finishing actually is. There is also a post dyeing process that the women are responsible for.
The creation of Kuba cloth is achieved through a combined effort, but the tasks were specific for both men and women.
Historically Kuba cloth was used as sleeping mats and to make skirts worn by both men and women. Men wore a single skirt while women wore both a skirt and an overskirt. Although used and worn on a daily basis, the cloth held great significance in ceremonial affairs like funerals, where attendees would dress in their finest Kuba cloth. The body of the deceased was adorned and buried with the cloth as a sign of respect.
Skirts and overskirts are predominantly made from panels that are joined together in the finishing stages. The average length of a woman’s skirt can be up to 25 feet long, while men’s skirts can be up to 30 feet long.
Traditionally, Kuba cloth was also used as decorative pieces in the home. The patterns are rich and pleasing to the eye, while the colors compliment each other and accentuate the intricate designs that are rooted in Kuba culture. As a highly prized fabric, contemporary uses of the cloth include blankets, throws, scatter cushions, placemats, wall hangings, as well as garments.
The blankets and throws are lightweight, comfortable, and come in a range of designs and colors that draw attention but are not hard on the eye. Kuba cloth designs have been passed through generations for centuries and remain a monument to the creative and artistic talent of the once-great Kuba Kingdom.
The people of the Kuba Kingdom thrived in unity through diversity, where the individualism of each tribe was respected and promoted. Out of this, several different weaving, embroidery and finishing techniques were developed within the different tribes of the kingdom. This creative freedom manifested through a demand for bolder and more elaborate patterns and designs. Kuba cloth became a status symbol that visualized the standing and importance of the wearer.
The unique weaving and embroidery techniques stood the test of time and are still enjoyed and appreciated today. Kuba cloth remains a prominent part of the people of the DRC. The fabric has been embraced the world over. Very few changes have been introduced in creating Kuba cloth. Still, one notable change is the use of machines to give the cloth a more polished finish that many views as aesthetically pleasing.
Kuba cloth has travelled a truly remarkable journey, and older cloth pieces maintain and increase their value. Contemporary Kuba cloth brings home the essence of African creativity and ingenuity, adding a degree of sophisticated ambience in its use and application.
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