Kuba Cloth: Playing with Geometry
Kuba cloth, the magnificent embroidered and
applique fabric of the Kuba people, is the best-known example
of the ancient African tradition of raffia cloth weaving.
A Trend-Setting Art Form
Weaving, embroidery, appliqué; and
other textile techniques have long been staples of African artistry.
In the past, European nobility displayed raffia cloth in curio
cabinets as prime examples of African artistry. More recently,
the masterful abstract patterning displayed in Kuba cloth served
as a source of inspiration to artists such as Klee, Picasso, and
Braque. Matisse was such a fan that he displayed pieces of his
extensive Kuba cloth collection on the walls of his studio.
Symbols in the After-Life
The ceremonial occasions and court rituals
that embroidered raffia cloth were originally produced for are
rare events today.The survival of raffia weaving and embroidery
techniques is tied to the importance these cloths play in today's
funeral celebrations. The Kuba believe that high quality, correctly
patterned raffia dress is key to being recognized by clan ancestors
in the land of the dead, so families accumulate the cloths and
pass them down through the generations.
Creating Kuba Cloth
The basic unit of Kuba weaving is the undecorated
square of plain raffia cloth, the mbal, woven by men on an upright
single-heddle loom. Although men sometimes decorate the cloth
they weave, only women produce the most laborious and prestigious
type of cloth decoration, cut-pile embroidery.
It takes about a month of regular work for a woman to complete
a small square of kuba embroidery using a laborious technique
that includes dying, detailed needlework and clipping individual
tufts. Except for novices, designs are created as the crafter
proceeds, usually elaborating a new combination from the more
than 200 familiar patterns known designs, most which are identified
by name. The same patterns are used on other Kuba art forms, including
wood sculpture, metalworking, mat making, and women's body scarification.
Although the regular interlacing on the background cloth promotes
a regular and symmetrical design, Kuba artists favor an improvisational,
fluid effect that plays with deliberate asymmetries and pattern
variation, creating the exquisite workmanship that distinguishes
this native art form.
For more information or to purchase one of our cloth, call Corinne