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Kuba Textiles: A Cloth in the Fabric of Life

Kuba Cloth

The Kuba people of Africa have a vital textile tradition pulsing through their deeply rooted history, their rituals, their culture and their art.  Known as People of the lightning, People of the king and People of the cloth, the Kuba people are actually eighteen different, but culturally related, ethnic groups living in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (although some say nineteen groups).  Their designation as “people of the lightning” derives from their exulted skill in throwing many-bladed ritualistic knives (shongo) that resemble lightning. In the language of their neighboring tribe, the Luba, Kuba literally means “lightning.”  The Kuba self-identify as “people of the king,” unified under one royal leader whose lineage has been preserved for over 400 years.  Their identification as “people of the cloth,” or Bambala, encapsulates their rich legacy as virtuosos of the textile arts.  On another level, it also refers to the Kuba’s astonishing bounty of status cloth and ceremonial costumes, marking this group as particularly wealthy and powerful.  These cloths are commonly used as a means of measuring wealth and, in fact, some cloths are used as a form of currency (“woven currency”).  Even the King’s palace is centered around cloth: it is always built within the “well-woven plains” and the name of the palace itself conjures the word mbal, used to refer to a panel of woven raffia cloth.

In her book Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa, Vanessa Drake Moraga argues that “what may be most distinctive about the Kuba tradition is that textile art ultimately represents its most versatile, dynamic and imaginative form of visual expression” (12).  Textiles, then, are a visual language used by the Kuba to communicate essential information about themselves as individuals and as a society.  “Getting dressed” is not simply a matter of personal preference, it is a matter of  concretely saying who you are, where you came from and where you are going.  Their textiles are important markers of social status, lineage and ethnicity.  Extremely subtle differences in color, pattern, texture, borders, embroidery, and even how the pieces are constructed and layered all play a tremendous role in identifying the different ethnic groups and the different individuals within these groups.  It is truly astounding the degree to which Kuba people are identified through their clothing.

Kuba face mask
The foundation of the Kuba textile tradition is raffia, a type of palm fiber.  Raffia is used to make almost everything—from woven fabric and mats to headwear, baskets, masks and even the walls of homes.  Raffia gains its significance not only as a valuable physical resource (out of which things can be made), but also as an invaluable spiritual resource.  It is believed to be the thread that connects life to death and the realm of the spirit to the realm of the ritual.  Raffia clothing plays an especially important role during ceremonies and rites of passage, with specific textiles associated with various rituals.  Since clothing is an exact marker of who someone is during their lifetime, the Kuba people believe it is crucial to arrive in the land of the dead dressed in their best attire. For the most prosperous, this would be the ornamental raffia skirts typically worn for ceremonies.

Kuba dress
With their distinctive artistry, cultural import and symbolic function, the spectacular Kuba textiles have long inspired our designers at Peruvian Connection.  We hope to help preserve these ancient traditions by bringing them to life on our wearable works of art.  Our Kuba Sheath Dress (shown at the left) is patterned after a ceremonial wrap-skirt, known as a Tcaka, made from woven raffia with patches and embroidery.  This particular skirt is thought to belong to the Ngeende group, the largest and most dominant ethnicities of the Kuba people.  Our Sunila Skirt and the Kuba Tank Top were also inspired by traditional Shibori-dyed Kuba cloths.

Peruvian Connection is proud to support The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., which currently houses an impressive collection of Kuba textiles.  This exhibit is the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. to spotlight such a wide-ranging survey of Kuba design.  For more information about this exhibit and The Textile Museum, please visit their website here.

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