Of the vast array of African woven textiles and other surfaces decorated with pigments, beads, shells, feathers, and found objects, perhaps the most unusual are the textiles of the Kuba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Central Africa’s Kuba cloth distinguishes itself from the silk and cotton textiles of West Africa by the material from which it is made – the grassy fiber extracted from the young leaves of the local raffia palm. The fiber, teased from the underside of the leaf, produces an extremely fine thread that is then woven by village men on single-heddle looms. The cloths are then passed on to the women for decoration.
Tie-dyed, appliquéd, studded with cowrie shells, embroidered with a flat continuous stitch or embroidered with tufts of thread that are built up in to a velvety pile, Kuba women produce skirts, ceremonial costumes and funerary shrouds that can reach 25 to 30 feet in length. The results are stunningly beautiful in their design whimsy and complexity. So captivating are the geometric patterning, the balance of color, the intricate meshing of decorative techniques, the hang of the textile, the intrusion of an unlikely element making the whole just a little bit mad, that artists and designers the world over, from Henri Matisse and Paul Klee to Roger Fry, have drawn inspiration from them.
It is the Kasai ‘velvets’ – those cloths embroidered with threads raised into a cut pile that has the feel of velvet – that are the stars of the genre. This is skillful, time-consuming work, and it takes about a year for a woman to produce a well-made cloth with a subtle pattern. The designs, usually abstract or geometric, find their source in the mythological world of the Kuba and reflect, particularly during funerals, the myths that are being reenacted in their rites of passage. In pre-contact Kuba textiles, the cloths tended to be monochromatic and restrained in their motifs. As the 20th century progressed, however, and missionaries became involved in promoting textile production for sale to tourists, the cloths show a marked chaotic nature in their designs, and a wide mix of colors appear within one piece.
Appliquéd Kuba textiles have found a large market in today’s world of interior design and are most often used for upholstery and cushion covers. Orginally, the appliqué elements, haphazardly scattered over the cloth, were used as a form of darning to hide tears and holes. Today, in the huge quantity of these and the velvets making their way on to the market, there is noticeable predictability to their design and color choreography. Nevertheless, Kuba textiles are an endlessly fascinating feast for the eyes.
To learn more about Kuba cloth, HAND/EYE suggests:
African Costumes and Textiles: From the Berbers to the Zulus, 5 Continents Editions
A variety of Kuba cloth is available at NYC’s ABC Carpet & Home: www.abchome.com