Collections of African Kuba Textiles

Collections of African Kuba Textiles
15 records
Some of the most tactile and visually stunning textiles in Africa were created jointly by the men and women of the Kuba culture, which is comprised of eighteen subgroups living in the fertile lands between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their raffia cloth, embellished with a dazzling array of geometric patterns in a limited variety of techniques, such as embroidery, appliqué, patchwork, and resist-dyeing, has been produced and admired for centuries. More than any other type of textile from Africa, the artistic merits of these textiles have been so revered that the Kuba were often referred to as bambala, or people of the cloth.

This masterpiece collection of Kuba textiles and ceremonial skirts includes 117 stellar examples by the Bushoong (Kuba aristocracy), Shoowa, Ngongo, and Ndengese groups. Fibers from the Raphia vinifera palm were cultivated, processed, and woven into cloth by Kuba men. Cut from the loom, the fabric was handed over to Kuba women to pound and soften, to be stitched to finish the edges and adorned with surface decoration. The mutually dependent contributions of men and women in producing textiles are linked to Kuba concepts of cultural identity, community responsibility, and spiritual beliefs.

Among the best-known type of Kuba textiles, and the most represented in this collection, are the embroidered cut-pile cloth panels also referred to as Kasai velvets or Kuba velours. Wielding an iron needle threaded with softened strands of raffia, women systematically pass the needle and thread through the tight intersections of the woven warp and weft, creating tufted velvet-like areas trimmed with a small sharp knife to lengths of one to three millimeters. The allover rectilinear designs are not mapped out on the cloth prior to being embroidered but executed from memory, drawing on an extensive repertoire of over two hundred named patterns that have been passed down from generation to generation.

The myriad geometric forms and rhythmic lines adorning Kuba textiles and dress can also be found covering the surfaces of architectural walls, sacred and secular objects, and the scarification of human bodies. Creating patterns is enjoyed by kings and commoners alike; one can gain social esteem through pattern making and accrue wealth through the accumulation of textiles covered with patterns. Kuba textiles are prestigious status symbols presented to kings as tribute, utilized as currency in widespread trade, given as part of a dowry, offered to the dead, or used to construct ceremonial clothing.

In the early twentieth century the mysterious allure of African art touched the lives and work of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee. In searching for new modes of pictorial and perceptual imagery, each artist's work was profoundly affected by African art. Matisse was undoubtedly inspired by the Kuba textiles that hung on the walls of his bedroom and studio.

This significant collection of Kuba textiles was assembled by Georges Meurant, a Belgian artist and scholar who wrote Shoowa Design: African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba.

These visually dynamic textiles underscore the phenomenal insight into the possibilities of repetitive geometric compositions shared universally by artists around the world.

(Sharon Takeda, Senoir Curator Costume and Textiles, 2009)