The Kuba cloth, which is indigenous to the Kuba people, originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Between the 17th and early 20th century, the Kuba Kingdom (which is now the South Eastern region of the DRC) was one of the largest kingdoms in Africa. Apart from their control over the ivory and rubber trade, they were renowned for their art. That included masks, sculptures, beadwork and of course, the Kuba textile.
Traditionally, they were made from raffia palm leaves strands that were tightly woven in elaborate, geometric designs. Complex surface decorations illustrated via vegetable dyes were used to complete the textile. Additionally, it was common to decorate the cloth pieces with appliqué shapes. According to an article by Africa Imports, the Kuba people resisted the use of European cloth or machine-made cloths for many years. Each design element of the fabric carried in-depth meaning and spoke to the wearer’s status, as well as, characteristics.
The elite used the Kuba cloth as a status symbol and a means to assert themselves in a changing world.
How It’s Made
In the Kuba textile production process, tasks are divided across gender lines. Men are responsible for cultivating the raffia and weaving the cloth. Granted, there are several types of raffia cloths that serve specific purposes. As mentioned in Kuba: Visions of Africa Series, written David Binkley and Patricia Darish, the most common in production was a plain woven version that acts as a base for a decorated textile. The leaves are first collected and stripped into strands before using an inclined, single-heddle loom to weave them together by hand.
At this stage, the cloth can be rigid and can be softened by pounded it with a mortar. Dying can also take place at this point. If it was a prestigious piece, it would probably be dyed with a deep red substance known as twool. Derived from the heartwood of specific tropical trees. In the Weaving Abstraction: Kuba textiles and the woven art of Central Africa’, author and art historian Vanessa Moraga explains that twool was used because the Kuba believed it had shielding and enchanted elements. When mixed with palm oil, it would also be used in ceremonies such as initiations and funerals.
Patterns, Designs & Meaning
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. According to an article by Ann E. Svenson for WAAC Newsletter (Volume 8), there are three types of embroidered cloths: Cut pile embroideries, uncut embroideries and cut or open work embroideries (Read the detailed description here). The appliqué and patchwork approaches work by respectively adding or taking away from the fabric. While the former creates the pattern by fastening additional fabric pieces to the base cloth, the latter first cuts away arts of the base cloth to establish the pattern. It then calls for the gaps to be patched with a different fabric that has been fashioned into the shape of the cut out.
Patterns that are found on Kuba cloth are rooted in shared religious beliefs. One such conviction of the Kuba people is that they are the children of Woot. This supernatural being is the son of Bumba the Sky-Father and the Earth-Mother. Woot taught them the art of weaving as a functional skill, as well as, a means to comprehend life. About 200 patterns are in existence. It’s said that the name the pattern gets not only describes an event or meaningful object or place, but also honours the person who made the piece. The patterns and their meanings are passed on from one generation to the next. That way, the art form can continue to communicate and preserve the history of the people.
It’s important to note that each community had some distinguishing characteristics that they’d incorporate into the design. For context, here’s a little history. After Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam of the Bushongo (“people of the throwing knives”) took over the kingdom in the 17th century, there were 18 ethnic groups consolidated around the Bushongo. Together with the Lele, BaTwa and Njembe, the new nation was called Kuba which means “the people of lightning”. The variation could be the base cloth’s hue, the number of fibres per inch, the craftsmanship style, texture of the finished cloth, or even the choice in finish. For example, the Bushongo are traditionally very uniform. A trait that translates into their design and denotes the king’s power. Nonetheless, the different styles fit together in the weaving culture that defines the entire Kuba kingdom.
The Kuba people historically used the cloth as wrappers, skirts, sleeping mats, in marriage negotiations and even currency. The elite also used the Kuba cloth as a status symbol and a means to assert themselves in a changing world. Ivory made the Kuba kings considerably wealthy, a fact they chose to broadcast through their bespoke ceremonial wardrobes. When Shyaam took power, he did away with the patrilineal succession. In his government, the elected Bushongo king was responsible to a parliament consisting of official representatives of each Kuba ethnicity.
Because titles were awarded on merit, parties and royal ceremonies were akin to a fashion showdown. Elites would compete to see who would have the most impressive and unique patterns, capturing the attention of the crowd and so, assert their power. Of course, the artists left the best designs for the king. The need to assert power through textile design grew in the mid-1800s with the threat of the Belgian colonizers.
Kuba Cloth to the World
For centuries, the Kuba kingdom were able to keep the textiles to themselves. Under Belgian rule, just before the turn of the 20th century, the Kuba kings gradually allowed trade with Europe. Since then, they have been in demand. From museums and private museums, to the films sets of Frasier and Grey’s Anatomy. Kuba textiles have been exhibited as archetypes of African fine art. It’s also been a muse for artists, such as French painter Henri Matisse. He kept some textiles in his studio and often stared at them awaiting inspiration from the instinctive geometry.
In 1960, the DRC gained independence and Kuba artists began making bigger and bolder designs. On the surface, this move was a response to market demand for the cloth. However the design savvy was the artists once more using the textile to reinforce power. It’s said that it was also a message that the people of Kuba were not passive in the face of colonization.
Today, the Kasai province in DRC still produces Kuba textiles. Though, the newer version for export may not represent power through their patterns anymore. Thus, authentic traditional pieces are sought after collectable items. However, Kuba and Kuba-inspired designs continue to be in-demand. It’s prevalent in the interior design sector, often used to make pillows, rugs, tapestries, wall hangings, ottomans, and framed art. Despite the country’s dark period during colonization, the textiles survival is an amazing testimony to the culture’s resilience and beauty.