TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Kuba Cloth: The Art of Woven Raffia

I can't think of another fiber form that better illustrates how to take a material like raffia, found abundantly in nature, and transform it into art more than the Kuba cloth of Zaire. Sure, I love fiber art in its many incarnations, but the kuba cloth has a special place in that repertoire for me. Kuba cloth was originally woven into long yardage used to make ceremonial skirts and clothing. The process is extremely laborious so 20th Century weavers began making smaller pieces for the tourist market as Westerners increasingly visited Africa. These smaller pieces may take up to a month to make, from the beginning of the process until completion.

There are two basic types of kuba cloths, each with its own appeal. The first is a flat-weave that often has appliquéd symbols and shapes over the background. The second is often referred to as plush or velvet raffia and is made similarly to a knotted carpet. Raffia is tied to the background weaving and then cropped closely. Kuba cloths may show symmetry in design, but they are often boldly chaotic. Parallels have been drawn between African American quilts to African influences found in kuba and other textiles.

Authentic Africa has a nice history on the Kuba textiles:

"The art of the Kuba of Zaire, which ranges from pipes to cups, metal to weapons, basketry to furniture to textiles, is remarkable for its abstract patterning. Traditional appliqued cloth was primarily made into dance skirts. Skirts and embroidered Kuba textiles were produced and used for ceremonial occasions and court rituals. Until it was replaced by cowry shells, the basic Kuba weaving unit, an undecorated square of plain cloth, the mbal, was used as currency. Kuba cloth is woven from raffia palm leaves. Production of the fine decorative textile is a series of endeavors engaging both men and women. The men are responsible for the growing, tending, harvesting and weaving of the cloth. The women are responsible for preparing it for decoration by pounding the stiff, rough cloth in a large wooden mortar until softened, for hemming and in some cases, treatment with brown, wine-red, black blue or yellow dye from local plant sources. The women create the cut pile embroidered panels as well. The men's dancing skirts are significantly longer than that of the women’s, sometimes having distinct borders with fringe and raffia bobbles. The women’s skirts up to nine yards in length, would be wound around the body several times and folded over a belt. Some of the decorative techniques incorporated by both men and women are applique and reverse applique, dyeing, tie-dyeing and resisted-dyeing, certain types of embroidery as well as patchwork. Patchwork in Kuba cloth came about because of the softening process. The pounding would cause holes to develop in the cloth that would need to be repaired; thus patchwork would be used. To further enhance the look and to balance the visual effect, other patches of various geometric designs were added. Some dancing skirts can take up to two years before all the cloth needed to finish the skirt has been gathered. The Kuba’s primary contemporary use of the cloth is at funerals of wealthy elders. The traditional techniques used to create the cloth have survived because of these funerals, enabling us to continue to enjoy the extraordinary creative Kuba textiles."

Vrije Universiteit Brussel has more historical information. The above photo from 1909 of Kuba dancers wearing skirts made of the woven raffia. On Kuba design they state:

" The outstanding Kuba style diagnostic is geometric patterning used to embellish the surfaces of many objects. These designs are woven into raffia textiles and mats, plaited in walls, executed in shell and bead decoration, and incised on bowls, cups, boxes, pipes, staffs, and other forms including masks. All art forms and designs are laden with symbolic and iconographic meaning, and the same is true of the rich Kuba masquerades."

Visit the page for more information on Kuba beliefs and traditions.

How can we use these wonderful textiles in contemporary settings? Some simply hang them as wall pieces or as center pieces on tables and dressers, but they can be framed or mounted for a more finished look. Indigo Arts of Philadelphia offers gorgeous pillows made out of kuba cloths for $110-$190:

Indigo Arts pillow using the plush raffia kuba cloth.

Indigo Arts pillow using the appliquéd kuba cloth.

Kuba cloth is easily cared for: it can be washed by hand with a mild soap. Crinkles can be flattened by spraying with water and ironed.

I have several kuba cloths available for sale in both my Etsy and eBay stores for $45 each:

Kuba on Etsy
Kuba on eBay

There are many qualities and price ranges of kuba cloths. I have been purchasing mine from the same African dealer for years and have always had customer satisfaction with them.


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. Don't we just love what people manage to do with fiber? :)


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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