Kuba textiles have been designed and handcrafted by the Kuba ethnic group of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for hundreds of years; the skill of the craft being passed on from generation to generation and the cloth is still produced today.
Weaving is of paramount importance to the Kuba peoples, woven fabric forming the basis of the ceremonial dress for royalty and thereby expressing status of wealth, hierarchy and personal states of transition.
Traditionally woven to use as a wraparound skirt during ritual festivals and performances, the main material used in the construction of the cloth is a fiber extracted from the raffia palm. The skirt was secured with a sash and usually worn over a plain red or cream embroidered skirt and is thought to be a unisex garment.
The cloths are unique for their surface decoration, elaboration of design and general complexity of construction of the textile.
In superior fabrics they are decorated with applied ornamentation such as linear embroidery and attaching of cowrie shells and seeds. Appliquéd holes and patch-working different cloths and designs together are other techniques of embellishment as are creating areas of cut-pile surfaces and making tight bobbles out of raffia for the fringes.
Some of these cloths are up to 20 feet long and others are 2 foot square rectangles to be hung behind royal thrones, draped over altars and can be used as sleeping mats.
There is also a technique of making the edges wavy to enhance movement during celebration dances by stitching a reed around the edges of the cloth.
Throughout a man's life, he will collect and preserve inherited Kuba cloths to celebrate his position in society and represent his high status at his funeral.
After migrating south in the 16th Century and between the 17th and 20th Centuries, the Kuba kingdom, (also known as the Kingdom of the Bakuba or Bushongo), was one of the most extended and powerful societies in Africa, trading in ivory and rubber in the southeast area of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The kingdom reached its apex during the mid 19th Century.
As far back as early 17th century, central governments in the region collected textiles as a form of tribute-tax to expand the royal treasury. The Wissmann expedition into the Kasai River region in 1884 first reported the presence of these outstanding cloths but it is noted that the Bakuba resisted exchanging their products in trade for imported cloth for many years.
The first real attempt to document the material culture of the peoples of the Kasai was made by Emil Torday in the early decades of the 20th Century and it was he and his associates at the British Museum who called the raffia cut-pile cloths "Kasai Velvet" as a point of reference.
This piece above is one of the oldest pieces in a collection anywhere and can be found at the Baltimore Museum in the USA. It is dated somewhere between 1736 and 1799 (carbon testing).
The elaborateness of Kuba cloth can be used to trace the rise and decline of the kingdom but even today, nineteen different ethnic groups still exist and are presided over by the reigning monarch (nyim), Kot-a-Mbweeky III who has been on the throne since 1968.
The raffia fibre used in kuba cloth production is woven only by men on a 45 degree angled loom. It requires great skill and physical stamina, always working above your head.
There are 2 major types of Kuba cloth in terms of production, all using raffia palm.
Firstly, the cut-pile tapestry cloths we have seen already (shoowa) and secondly the appliquéd cloths which are strip woven, the appliquéd designs are stitched on and then the cloth is sewn together to make the final item (long wraparound skirt). The men of the tribes are responsible for cultivating, cutting, gathering and dyeing the fabric using indigo, mud and especially substances from the camwood tree which are referred to as twool and are red in color.
The raffia fibre is rubbed by hand to soften it for weaving and then woven into cloth on inclined, single-heddle looms.
The fabric is still rough when it comes off the loom and is then pounded in a mortar, easing it further and making it ready for surface finishing by the womenfolk.
Women are in charge of the embellishment of the woven pieces, a time consuming process of making the cut pile sections, applying surface design details, appliquéing contrasting colors on top of the base cloth to create abstracted, geometric designs and then constructing garments out of the cloth... like hats, wraps, belts, ceremonial skirts and cloths for trade.
Henri Matisse the French impressionist acquired many styles of kuba cloth to adorn the walls of his studio as seen in the historical photograph above. Sitting alongside his cutouts, their graphic, geometric shapes and abstract patterning intrigued him and provided source of inspiration.
It is said that he would sit and stare at them "waiting for something to come to me out of there instinctive geometry". His 1947 paper cut-out Les Velours reportedly was influenced by kuba appliqué.
There are 4 components that make up the uniqueness and specialness of each individual kuba cloth:
These are all contributing factors in determining what a piece finally ends up looking like. A particularly beautiful and accomplished kuba cloth can be directly linked to hierarchy and reinforcing political authority. The dramatic impact of its design is key to visually cementing that dominance.
There are, in fact, over 200 types of traditional patterns, (permutations of hexagons, rectangles, squares, chess, triangles and other compositions), that are handed down from generation to generation. In production a basic design is rarely worked out in advance and the pattern is created from memory and repetition. of motif or pattern, mostly interlocking geometrics. It does however account for the more abstract design and sometimes, the fascinating asymmetry, that exists in some cloths.
There are two aspects to coloring kuba cloths, namely those that are produced using a palette of natural, vegetal dyes and those that have been made using synthetic dyes. The latter are harsher, bolder and brighter in character.
Traditionally dyes are created by natural materials, red from sandalwood or camwood, yellow form the brimstone tree, black from vegetable sources and mud... and white from kaolin, a mineral.
Bright colors (like the blue in the cloth here) will be derived from synthetic sources.
A more sombre palette of natural raffia (cream), raw and dark umber and charcoal also exists alongside the more commonplace ochre, tan, red and deep browns.
DECORATION-Surface Embellishment, Borders and Sashes
For textile enthusiasts, Kuba cloths make wonderful wall hangings and soft furnishings. Each cloth is unique and provides an element of substance and interest to an environment.
Textile designers love kuba cloth! They can be dramatic or subtle and that's their beauty.
Here an extraordinarly exquisite piece of appliquéd kuba cloth acts like an abstract wall piece, creating a dramatic effect in a home. A simple, contemporary way of hanging the textile completes the modern look.