“You may say that art is in our blood”.. George Bope, commenting about the Kuba people, 2002.
After 1994, when South Africa opened up to the rest of the continent, rich cargoes of raffia cloth were conveyed in battered portmanteaux from war torn Congo to Johannesburg flea markets for sale. Here, these beautiful black, cream and ochre coloured fabrics were unpacked and displayed for the appreciation of local clientele.
Most of these raffia cloths are characterized by striking designs and fine craftsmanship. Some cloths were woven at the turn of the 1900’s, some were new. Raffia is processed and woven by the Kuba people, Kasai province, Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kuba are part of a large group comprising the following subtribes. The: Bushoong, Shoowa, Kele, Pianga, Ngende, Ngongo. All of whom make raffia cloths.
Most of these fabrics are worn as garments, plain ones by laymen for everyday wear and the more lavish by dignitaries of the royal court. The most beautiful cloths were donned by men and women at the occasion of masquerades, age grade ceremonies and the investiture of officials. Fabric is displayed by being repeatedly wound around the body or layered over other cloths, thereby obscuring the human shape. Perhaps one might speculate that the intention is to transform the body into a more sophisticated form. Besides being worn as court dress, raffia cloth also has another significance:
The wearers’ gender, status, clan and identity can be discerned at a glance by the initiated from the colour of the fabric, its shape on the body and above all its decoration. The embellishment of these cloths is characteristic of the aesthetic style of the people and the decorative motifs used on the cloths, are mirrored in the designs of their scarification, utilitarian ware, basketry and low relief sculpture.
When they are worn, these earth coloured cloths form the perfect foil for the addition of sumptuous cowrie shell hats, belts and beadwork of Kuba royals and dignitaries. These beaded objects are exemplified by excessive detail. The visual combination of blocks of large and small scale beads with cowries, is unique in Africa to the Kuba people of the D.R.C
Raffia textile is woven by men, using a technique thought to originate from the pygmies. Palm leaves are steeped in water thereby causing the vegetable matter to disintegrate, leaving a series of fibrous hair-like strands. These are dried and strung onto a small upright loom, forming the warp threads. As the extent of the strands dictates the size of the weaving, large cloths are woven in sections and then sewn end to end to form the requisite length.
Although men weave the cloth, the women are responsible for the embellishment of all fabrics. Varied textures are created and techniques used, for example: applique, embroidery, openwork stitching, cut-pile techniques, dyeing and batiking. Oxides of various tones, used to shade applique contrast with a background of another hue, or borders, to make a fabulous impression. The names of decorative motifs on fabrics are handed down over the generations and derive from fauna and flora, revered ancestors and particular incidents in village life. Additions to the edges of the cloth may include bands of animal skin, cowries, beads, pompoms, and small metallic cast insects. These sway and jostle with each movement, or catch the light adding visual interest.
Raffia textile ranges in scale. Cloth production from start to finish can span several months, sometimes years. Cloths undergo facelifts according to the ravages of time, dictates of fashion or lately the necessities of trade. The borders can change, shapes can be appliqued onto an existing cloth or sections assembled and added for what is perceived as a more saleable appearance. While marketing practice helps keep the art form alive, it has a seed that spells its demise. Cloths are sometimes irrevocably changed into a modern aberration to meet the growing demands of the market place.
Trends from 2000 to 2010, of using earthy coloured raffia cloth in interior design has peaked and dissipated. Game lodges reliant on this raffia decor to sell an “African look” have also moved on. One may suggest that the fickleness of fashion, and the decline in demand might result in this unique product being saved for future enthusiasts to appreciate.