Wednesday, 29 October 2014

An early Cameroun chief’s robe.


Chief’s prestige robe, Grassfields region, Cameroun, early C20th. Private collection, London. Front view.

This exceptional robe is tailored from hand woven hand spun indigo dyed cotton cloth that was woven in quite wide panels. The most probable source for this cloth would be the upright single heddle looms used by women weavers in many parts of Nigeria and the western part of Cameroun, although the cloth is of a looser weave and lighter weight than  is typical of Nigerian textiles of this type. The neck area is lined with a thin check patterned linen fabric that looks to be of French origin, while the hem and sleeve areas are dyed with a type of Central European patterned indigo cotton fabric called blaudrucke  - shown below.


Both the front and the back are decorated with hand embroidered designs in white, red, and yellow cotton. The large lozenge shape that encompasses the neck may perhaps be regarded as representing a necklace from which a giant bead or pendant is suspended. Small “double gong” motifs hanging from the “belt” area  are an early representation of what would become the dominant decorative motif on later Cameroun robes,  while the small lizards and other animals are quite a distinctive and unusual feature not typically found on robes even though they are part of the design repertoire of prestige sculptures and other royal artefacts.


Chief’s prestige robe, Grassfields region, Cameroun, early C20th. Private collection, London. Front view, detail.


Chief’s prestige robe, Grassfields region, Cameroun, early C20th. Private collection, London. Back view, detail.


Chief’s prestige robe, Grassfields region, Cameroun, early C20th. Private collection, London. Back view.

The construction of this robe from broad panels of hand woven indigo dyed cloth of uncertain origin compares closely to the robe shown below, which was collected before 1908 and is in the collection of the Museum der Kulturen, Basel.


“Cameroun: boubou bali, 198 x 130 cm. Collection du missionnaire G. Spellenberg (?), datent sans doute d’avant 1908. Collection de la Mission de Bale, Museum der Kulturen, Basel.” Scanned from Bernhard Gardi ed. Le Boubou –c’est chic (Editions Christoph Merian, 2000).

Click on the photos to enlarge.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Cultural Event in Taraba State, Nigeria

Some interesting images taken recently at a cultural event involving masquerade performances, taken recently in Bete or Betso Takum LGA Taraba state. This is a comparatively remote area close to the border with Cameroon. I am particularly interested to see indigo adire type resist dyed cloths still in use, a feature which is rarely seen in Nigeria today. Source: King Agbo Ebonyi on Facebook.


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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Sierra Leone Cloths at Wembley, 1924–another view.


Some months ago I posted a note on the display of Sierra Leone textiles at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley in 1924. I have since found this card which gives a better view of the “country cloths” on show. I wonder where they are today.

Madam Yoko, a Mende Chief, Sierra Leone


“Madam Yoko or Mammy Yoko (ca. 1849–1906) was a leader of the Mende people in Sierra Leone. Combining advantageous lineage, shrewd marriage choices and the power afforded her from the secret Sande society, Yoko became a leader of considerable influence. She expanded the Mende Kingdom and at the time of her death, she was the ruler of the vast Kpa Mende Confederacy.” Source: Wikipedia


Vintage postcards, circa 1900, author’s collection.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

New Book: “The Silence of the Women: Bamana Mud Cloths” by Sarah C. Brett-Smith


I am very excited to finally have a copy of the long awaited book The Silence of the Women: Bamana Mud Cloths by Sarah C. Brett-Smith. Published by 5 Continents this is an important as well as beautiful volume that combines art book presentation with deep ethnographic research. It is several decades since Sarah published a number of interesting and insightful articles on bogolanfini mud cloth, the subject of her Phd research in the 1970s, so it is great to finally read her full work on the subject.


Photo by Sarah C. Brett-Smith. “Salimata Kone painting the “foot of the dove” (ntufan sen) motif in the centre of a cloth decorated with the “Town gate” (Kalanga da) pattern. She is using a metal spatula. Kolokani, 7/5/78.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Two Asante Silk Kente Explored

001_4385 AsanteKente 6_6_2014

In today’s post I will be taking a look at two extraordinary Asante silk kente men’s cloths and airing some preliminary thoughts and queries that they suggest in relation to creativity and innovation. The first, above, a predominantly green version of the classic “a thousand shields” design, is from the William Itter Collection in the USA . The second, below, that we found recently and is now in a UK private collection, is a warp stripe patterned cloth called “Ammere Oyokoman”  in the familiar red green and gold colours so favoured by Asante weavers. Both cloths are woven from silk and both can be assumed to date to the first third of the C20th.


Looking first at the green cloth, on first glance it appears to be a standard version of a familiar design, such as the cloth, also from the William Itter Collection, below.


The diagonal grid pattern in the main field of the cloth is made up of small rectangles, recalling the rectangular shape of the wood and leather shield once used by Asante warriors and giving the cloth its name Akyempem, or “a thousand shields.” Incidentally the vast majority of Asante kente cloths were named after the warp stripe pattern, this is an exception. However the technique used is quite different as detail photos show:


Compare the usual version, above, where a supplementary weft float in red and yellow on a blue and white warp striped, warp faced background, is used to create each rectangle in the grid of “shields”, with the one below:

003_4359 AsanteKente 

Here the entire cloth is weft faced and the grid of red and yellow shields is created as weft faced rectangles using a tapestry weave  technique. I can’t recall another example of a fully weft faced Asante kente and I have certainly never seen tapestry weave used in this way. Also very unusual is the background colour that alternates picks of  yellow green and blue that blend to a muted green overall effect. These threads are not plied together to create a “tweed” in the way that Ewe  weavers sometimes do. We should also note that using this technique to reproduce the design would have been both significantly slower (as more weft threads and hence more weft picks are required) and, because it needed far more thread, considerably more expensive that the standard method.

Turning to the red Oyokoman cloth, here the notable feature is a large array of unique weft float patterns.


The grid framework imposed by the interaction of warp and weft threads naturally leads itself to the creation of diamonds, triangles, and regular stepped patterns and Asante kente weaving exploits these shapes to the full. Here though the master weaver has transcended the limitations of the form by weaving ellipses and even circles, as well as fragmenting the standard diamond shapes to create more complex composite motifs.


While my primary purpose here is simply to register, share, and admire these two wonderful cloths, to me they also raise a number of interesting questions about innovation and creativity in kente weaving and perhaps pose a challenge to any over simplistic contrast between creative expectations expressed in Asante as opposed to  Ewe textiles. Anyone familiar with the two genres is aware that there is a greater variety of styles and techniques apparent in “Ewe kente” than in Asante. As William  Itter noted in our discussion of these two cloths “regarding the controlled or restrained composure of construction and design found in Asante cloth from the more expected/unexpected variety of design in Ewe wraps.”

Here we have seen two superb examples of novel and innovative extension of established techniques that nevertheless remain within  the expected parameters of Asante kente design in terms of cloth layout, overall patterning etcetera.   Such cloths, I would suggest, arise out of a sustained interaction between an experienced master weaver and a exceptionally well informed and perceptive patron, in this context we might suppose an Asante king or senior chief with a deep knowledge and understanding of the existing pattern repertoire who is able to finance and encourage such sophisticated results over a considerable period. This hypothesis would fit with what little we know from the unfortunately rather inadequate ethnographic documentation of Asante kente production for royal patronage in weaving villages such as Bonwire. It would however, in my view, be over simplistic to contrast this with a more open pattern of patronage for Ewe cloths as alone explaining their greater variety. I will return to this complex topic in future posts.

I am very grateful to William Itter for generously sharing his photographs. My thanks also to the owner of the Oyokoman cloth.  Click on the images to enlarge.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cloth of the month: An Ewe Chief’s Robe Cloth


This month’s cloth is a fine Ewe chief’s robe in the classic style that alternates solid or striped weft-faced blocks with equal sized warp striped sections decorated with supplementary weft motifs. This style dates back at least to the start of the twentieth century and we can see a fine example worn by the Ewe chief Fia Dagadu III, in a photograph apparently taken in 1929 shown below.


See my earlier blog post here for more about this chief.


Supplementary or extra weft float motifs on this cloth include fish, mainly in pairs, chief’s stools, combs,  round pommelled swords (top left above) and as we see in the next image hands with fingers extended. In the main these are conventional images from the Ewe weaving repertoire and while they are named, do not have any particular symbolism. Rather they indicate to a viewer the skill of the weaver and the expense and luxury of the cloth and hence the wealth and prestige of the wearer.


Where the motifs do depart from tradition is in the hands with single raised fingers shown below. Rather than “giving the finger” as we might assume, these  are in part simply an elaboration and variation on a repeated motif that falls, as we will see, in a wider pattern of variation and repetition. However they are also a means of drawing attention to the hand motif that dominates a prominent row at the centre of the cloth. Proverbs play a key role in the culture of the region and images of hands and fingers evoke a range of proverbs, some of which may directly address the role of a chief and his followers.


If we turn our attention from the extra weft motifs to the weft-faced blocks we see that repetition with differences, which emerged as a feature in the motifs, is explored to a much fuller extent. The master weaver uses the limited range of colours he has selected, together with a very small set of weaving techniques, to fill the set of equal sized blocks with subtly varied patterns, almost all of which differ slightly from their neighbours.

Click 0n the photos to enlarge. To view this cloth and others from our current stock in our gallery site click here.