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Kuba Cloth, Congo, West Africa

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Directory: Vintage Arts: Regional Art: African: Textiles: Pre 1940: item # 1252599

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Kuba Cloth, Congo, West Africa
Vintage kuba: six rectangles in wave and diamond shapes, three-color pile, Congo, West Africa, very good condition, 15.5"H x 19"W. A trend-setting art form, magnificent Kuba cloth, hand-woven palm fibers, cut pile embroidery outlined in stitched embroidery, and appliqué—the technique produces what is known as “velvet,”—is the best-known example of the ancient African tradition of raffia cloth weaving. African Kuba cloth is just starting to become popular in the United States. Using the leaf of the raffia tree, the Kuba people of the Congo first hand cut, and then weave the strips of leaf to make pieces of fabric, often called raffia cloth. There are several different sub groups of the Kuba people. Each group has different and unique ways to make the fabric. Some make it thicker, longer, shorter, or with different patches. Each patch is symbolic and many times a piece has many different meanings. When Kuba cloth originated there were probably no patches used, but as the cloth is brittle it is quite likely that the patches were used to repair the frequent tears. Later each patch developed a meaning, many patterns are uniquely arranged to tell a story. The process of making Kuba cloth is extremely time consuming and may take several days to form a simple placemat size piece. The men first gather the leaves of the raffia tree and then dye it using mud, indigo, or substances from the camwood tree. They then rub the raffia fibers in their hands to soften it and make it easier for weaving. After they've completed the base cloth the women embroider it. They do this by pulling a few threads of the raffia fibers, inserting them into a needle running the needle through the cloth until the fibers show up on the opposite end. They then take a knife and cut off the top of the fibers, leaving only a little bit showing. Doing this hundreds of times forms a design. The designs are seldom planned out ahead of time, and most of the embroidery is done by memory. The Kuba people, who developed this and many other fabrics were very resistant to using European cloth; and for many years seldom used machine made fabrics. When researching this and other cloths that the Kuba people developed, it is not hard to understand why they resisted the change so much. Each fabric, each pattern, and each design in traditional Kuba fabrics has great meaning. On the basis of what a person wore; you could interpret much about them. Social status age, marital status, and a person's character were just a few of the things a piece of cloth symbolized to these people. –Reprinted with permission: Africa Imports, Textiles employing techniques such as weaving, appliqué and embroidery have long played an important part of traditional African artistic and ceremonial expression. So influential have been these amazing textiles that European nobility once displayed raffia cloth examples in their parlors. The masterful abstract geometrics of Kuba cloth inspired famous artists, particularly recognizable in the works of Picasso, Braque and Klee. Matisse was so enamored of Kuba cloths that his painting studio doubled as a museum for his collection. Although the patterning of Kuba cloths represent references to the after-life for these Congolese, and the ceremonies and court rituals for which the cloths were originally created are rare to non-existent now, the vitality of the geometrics and their arrangements speak to us still. Though popular worldwide for their decorative qualities, these raffia weavings with embroidery continue to play an important role in the Kuba’s funeral celebrations. The Kuba believe that only the highest quality, correctly patterned raffia dress will assure “recognition by clan ancestors in the land of the dead.” For that reason, Kuba families accumulate fine examples and pass them down through the generations. The basic unit of Kuba weaving is the unadorned raffia cloth square. Men weave this mbal on upright single-heddle looms. Decorating them with symbolic waves and geometrics using cut-pile embroidery techniques is the laborious, yet prestigious, task of women. The dying process and detailed needlework, which includes clipping individual loops to create the texture of velvet-like tufts, can take up to a month for a small square. Kuba embroiderers know more than 200 frequently used patterns by name, motifs repeated throughout other ceremonial and art forms, even body scarification. Yet, each new Kuba cloth is likely to be a variation on a familiar theme, improvisationally conceived as the weaver progresses. Symmetrical geometrics morph into favored asymmetrical adaptations that have made this art form so desirable.

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