The beauty, sophistication and finesse of raffia cloths, touch many. This virtual show reveals some of these extraordinary fabrics, woven from raffia by men and decorated with infinite skill, by women, of the Democratic republic of Congo.

This exhibition visually elaborates on a previous blog post: Raffia cloths made by the Kuba people, D.R.C, 6 Aug, 2015, that provides background information on how raffia fibre is extracted and why these cloths are important and their uses.

Who are the Kuba? The Kuba kingdom is a federation of independant chieftains of 19 ethnic groups under the authority of the Bushoong king. These include the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kel, Kyaang, Bulaag, Bieeng, Liebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngombe, Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk and Ngongo people amongst others. They live between the Sankoro, Lulua and Kasai rivers, in central Congo.

The depth, sensitivity and range of Kuba artistic talent is breathtaking.

Other noteworthy aspects of their artwork are: masquerades and dance, mask making and paint, sculpture and beading. Their royal beading includes an assemblage of shells and glassbeads, threaded on raffia in a way unique to the Kuba people.

Beadwork that embellishes the King and chiefs.

Regarding the accumulation of cowries (a form of currency) in the Congo,, Green.T, states that ” …hoarding tradegoods created a different economic dynamic in which economic accumulation and religious power were inextricable”.

The robust aggregate of beads and cowries, so beloved by the Kuba, can also be discerned on some cloths when they invest many richly detailed techniques into a single piece.

However, there are others exemplified by a nuanced sophistication using a subtle colour palette, as in this example:

Fig: 1a. Dim: 131 x 43cm.

Raffia fibres are obtained from palm leaves, a material that when woven, is strong, durable and washable. It is believed that they were taught how to make raffia cloth and process bark cloth, by the rainforest pygmies.

The Kuba wear raffia cloths that are plain and functional, or can be ornate prestige items, imbued with meaning for specific rituals, ceremonies and royal investitures. Different genders wear a variety of cloth shapes and historically, fabric developed to be of a specific size, design, colour and name. These are decorated by being appliqued, dyed, batiqued and embroidered using a variety of stiches. As mentioned, beads, seeds, shells and paint also embellish cloths.

Besides being worn, raffia cloths were also used as legal tender and traded from ancient times, across Africa and later, during the 16 and 1700s, traded as cloth during the slave trade, to the Americas. 

Rolls of raffia cloth used as currency.

Ethnologist and scholar Joseph Cornet documented and researched Kuba art and weaving for 30 years, writing numerous books including an extensive study called: ART ROYAL KUBA.

Photograph from Art Royal Kuba by Joseph Cornet.

Looms for weaving raffia are portable and lightweight. As the length of the raffia and the scale of the loom determines the size of the woven pieces, Large cloths are woven in sections, then sewn end to end to form the required length.

Fig: 1: A loom strung with raffia fibre.
Raffia cloth being woven.

A division of labour had men weaving and women decorating fabric.

A Kuba woman with traditional hairstyle..

Organic dyes made from plants, bark and ground red camwood, were originally used to colour cloths and embroidery thread. In some examples of their craftsmanship, the decorative aesthetic lies in the manipulation of progressive geometric shapes developing across the surface of the fabric. These disruptions visually enliven the cloth and one can speculate are visually akin to changing musical rhythms in drumming.

This is particularly evident in the small decorative cloths made by the Shoowa people using a combined stem stitch and cut-pile technique, that imparts a velvet texture.

Fig: 2. 95 x 41 cm.
Fig: 2a. 67 x 72 cm.

A mathematician, Donald Crowe, found that Kuba artists developed all the geometric possibilities of repetitive compositions of border patterns, and of the seventeen ways that a design can be repetitively composed on a central space, the Kuba had exploited twelve of them “. Extract :The extraordinary in the ordinary, textiles from the Lloyd Cotsen and the Neutrogena corporation, edited by Mary Kahlenberg. 1998.

Photograph of Bushoong women by Angelo Turconi.

The Kuba women above and below, wear Ntshakishweppi wound around the waist and covered by Ntshakakot, Ntshakminen and buinobushin, Some examples of these are indicated below this photograph.. (Bushoong ethnic group).
Photograph of Bushoong women, by Angelo Turconi.

Womens Cloths:

Textiles have different names designating the genre, colour, function and decorative patterns or techniques used.

Fig: 3. Ntshakakot. Worn over Ntshakishweppi, by women, comprising an embroidered central field with cut pile embroidered borders and a thick bound wavy edge. 155cm in length. 1930.

Fig: 4. Buinobushin. Worn over Ntshakishweppi by women.. A cream coloured central field with interlocking cut-pile trellises, interspersed with overcast stemstitch knots. Border patterns are made using overcast stem stitch. Dim: 78 x 163cm. 1930.

Fig: 5. Ntshakisheng. worn over Ntshakishweppi, by women. The central field comprises rows of black and white triangular cut barkcloth, stitched together. The border has an interlocking design in overcast stem stitch. 83 x 192cm in length. Bushoong. 1930.

Fig: 6. Ntshakminen. Worn over Ntshakishweppi by women. A cut pile red field with images of twisted knots done in overcast stem stitch, with an exceptional blue and cream border. Dim: 56 x 162 cm in length. Bushoong people.

Fig: 7. Buinobushin, worn over Ntshakishweppi by women. This exceptional craftsmanship is created using overcast stem stitch. The design in the centralfield is a vibrant interplay of diagonals, accented with yellow at the intersections. Colours are blue, black and yellow.
Dim: 65 x 138cm in length. Bushoong people. 1930.

The close-up detail below indicates the incredible level of skill, artistry and subtle colouration in the Buinobushin cloth .

Fig:4 detail.

The large Ntshakishweppi cloths worn by women are mostly embroidered. They are wound round the body many times and may be 3-5 meters in length or more, depending on the girth of the wearer.

Fig: 9. Ntshakishweppi. Worn by women, sections dyed with red camwood and embroidered using stemstich. 3.47 cm in length.
Fig:25. Ntshakisweppi detail of cloth. Worn by women, beige, with finely emboidered surface.
Fig: 26. Embroidered cloth of small dimension, possibly used for an infant.Dim: 43 x 117 cm.

The close up details below indicate the fine weave of the textile and the beautiful balance and proportion of the motifs. The repetitive harmonious dimensions of each “stripe” are visually reminescent of the fibres used in the woven screens, mats and walls of their architecture.

Decorative iconography found on cloths are also repeated in other artistic genres, such as: on carved boxes or wooden items, or painted on masks and used in scarification on the body.

Early 1900s: Woman photographed in the Congo.

There is a visual relationship between scarification and the applique patterns on cut pile and mapele cloths.

Close up detail of cut-pile borders of cloth.

Applique was originally a practical solution for mending small holes when the fabric was beaten after weaving, to make it soft and pliable. Overtime, this developed into a specific decorative construct.

Sometimes when applique is random, it enlivens the surface in a beautiful way.

A section of an old Mapele cloth, Dim: 72 x 297cm in length, early 1900.

Cloths Worn by Men

Mapele cloths, worn by men are gathered around the waist and secured by a belt, usually with the top folded over.

Bushoong king featured wearing mapele cloth., Art Royal Kuba.
A group of Kuba men wearing plain mapele cloths, Early 1900s

Decoration differs according to the aesthetics of ethnic groups and the status of individuals. Colours range from rich red, black, brown, cream and blue.

Fig: 11. Mapele cloth, a striking combination of applique motifs and embroidery in neutral and black colours.Dim: 89 x 338 cm

Fig: 12. Mapele cloth. Alternately coloured rectangles with two tone applique, Dim: 67 x 482cm, Pianga people.

Fig: 13. Mapele cloth. Central red field with schematic applique pieces in black. Dim: 79 x 261 cm in length. Pianga people.

Fig: 14. Mapele cloth, with natural central field, cream coloured schematic applique and handpainted black border decoration. Dim: 81 x 316cm in length. Pianga people.
Close up detail of Fig: 14 showing finger painted edges using organic dye.
Fig:15. Mapele cloth. rectangles of raffia and bark cloth, applique, embroidery and pigment.Dim:53 x 580cm in length. Bushoong people.

Fig:16. Mapele cloth. (detail of cloth). A red camwood central field comprised of thin strips of raffia, joined by openwork stitching, cream applique and vibrant cut-pile borders. Bushoong people. Dim: 77cm x 400cm in length. 1930s.
Fig:17, Mapele cloth. Woven by the Ngende group and characterized by a vibrant combination of styles, including bold use of colour, sections of square patchwork and batiqued areas. Dim: 79 x 427cm in length.
A close-up detail of fig: 17.

Fig:18. Mapele cloth. Characterised by a robust style and strong colour combinations. Black and white patchwork, batique, cut-pile motifs, embroidered and applique borders. Ngende people.

Fig:19. Mapele cloth detail. A combination of white, red and black raffia rectangles imparting a unique jazzy effect. Dim: 75 x 422cm in length. possibly Bushoong people?.

Fig: 24. Mabelengege. Geometric openwork designs with batik border. Dim: 66.5 x 122cm in lentgh.

Fig:20. Mapele cloth detail .Maroon open-work central field, with cream embroidery, and black and white patchwork border with raffia pom-poms. Bushoong people.

Fig:21. Mapele cloth. The central field composed of thin strips, joined by openwork stitching, applique, patchwork square borders with pom-pom edging. Dim: &9 x 402cm in length. 1930s. Bushoong people.

1Fig: 22. Mapele cloth. Terracotta coloured central field with varigated strapwork applique and black and white borders with raffia pom-pom edging. 580cm in length. 1930s. Bushoong people.

Fig 23. Mapele cloth. A masterly combination of patchwork pieces, cut-pile fabric,and raffia pom-poms. Bushoong people. Dim: 75 x 514 cm in length, Early 1900s.
Close up detail of fig: 23.

These cloths are exhibited below for the virtual experience:

Gallery viewing of cloths.

My future website will offer these cloths for sale.

It takes time to research and photograph this creative content so please consider sharing this post with like-minded enthusiasts.

Copyright © TribalNow 2021


Green.T. 2020. A fistful of shells, West Africa from the rise of the slave trade to the age of revolution. Penguin, Random house, U.K