Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year

ewe fragment1 Ewe weft float motif, Ghana, circa 1900. Author’s collection. Single hand motifs are common in Ewe weaving but aside from this early fragment I have seen only one other with this charming interlocking hand design.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Some field photographs


The master weaver and cloth dealer Alhaji Kegunhe in his shop, Iseyin, Oyo State, Nigeria. 1997. Recently published in B.Gardi ed. "Woven Beauty: The Art of West African Textiles." (Basel, 2009) Iseyin is one of the two main centres of Yoruba aso oke weaving and the Alhaji was one of its most successful weavers and dealers. Each bag contains sufficient cloth strips to be sewn up to make a woman’s wrapper skirt, shawl, and headtie, an outfit known as a “complete.”


Every four days before dawn in Okene market, Kogo State, Ebira women weavers display their completed cloths for sale folded in piles on their heads. Okene, circa 2002. Today Okene is the main centre for women’s weaving on the upright single heddle loom in Nigeria, with several thousand active weavers producing shiny rayon shawls in a variety of patterns which can be found on sale as far afield as Accra.


Hausa men weaving white cloth in strips 1cm in width. The completed strips will be sewn together edge to edge to make veils and robes, dyed dark indigo, then exported to Tuareg peoples in Niger and Mali. Kura, Kano State. Nigeria 2005. These are the narrowest strip of cloth woven in Africa and are among the most expensive of locally produced textiles. The production of this cloth for export to the peoples of the Sahara was once the main industry of Kano but today only a few skilled practitioners remain.


A pair of Hausa cloth beaters at work in the village of Kura. Completed and dyed veils are beaten with a mix of powdered indigo, goat fat, and water that imparts a metallic dark blue sheen. The cloth will be folded over into ever smaller sections and beaten repeatedly until the tightly pressed cloth forms a solid rectangular block about 30cm long. It is then wrapped in brown paper for sale. These two men are among the last remaining exponents of an ancient and highly skilled craft. Kura, Kano State, Nigeria, 2005.


A Nupe woman weaver at work in her husband's family compound, Lafiagi, Niger State, Nigeria, 2006. Unlike the Ebira, Nupe women weave mainly for local and family use and their cloths are rarely found for sale elsewhere in Nigeria or neighbouring countries.

Click on any image to enlarge. All photos copyright Duncan Clarke. Do not reproduce without permission.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Emile-Louis Abbat sur le Soudan Francais 1894-98

page album-leveled A page from the albums of annotated photographs taken by Emile-Louis Abbat in French Soudan. (copyright Catherine Abbat. Do not reproduce without permission.)

Fascinating new site displays 450 photographs with captions and 89 letters to his family left by Emile-Louis Abbat, a lieutenant in French Soudan (today Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso.) In addition to two of the earliest images of Malian weavers the first album includes rare views of a man wearing a lomasa boubou, another wearing a boubou tilbi, and a wonderful photo of a camel transporting two massive wheels of strip woven cloth.

“Emile-Louis ABBAT a été lieutenant au Soudan Français de 1894 à 1898. Il a laissé de cette période 450 photographies légendées (Sénégal, Mali et Burkina Faso actuels) et 89 lettres à sa famille, ainsi que plusieurs rapports militaires et une planche de dessins de scarifications. L’ensemble a été numérisé par mes soins.

La complémentarité iconographique et épistolaire du fonds en fait un témoignage exceptionnel sur cette page de l'histoire coloniale : les actions militaires bien sûr, mais aussi les relations entre les populations, les modes de vie, les métiers, la géographie, l’agriculture, et bien d’autres thèmes encore. Ce site se propose de le faire connaître.” Visit the site here

Adire African Textiles archive – Ewe cloths now online


One of the best ways to learn about a particular art form is to study numerous examples and familiarise oneself with variations in form and style. African textiles are in the main not well documented and it can be hard to find a good range of images online. Many major museums are in the process of making their collections accessible online and we will be reviewing some of these in subsequent posts. As our contribution to this process and as an educational resource, over the next few weeks we will be posting on line sections of our own archives. The first of these is a large selection of vintage Ewe cloths that have passed through our hands over the past decade. This part of the archive currently totals 625 photos that represent what seemed to me at the time to be the best and most interesting examples of Ewe weaving – in other words there are a lot of more ordinary pieces out there which I did not buy and therefore are not included here. Most date to between 1900 and 1950. The majority of these cloths are now in private or museum collections so please do not reproduce them without permission. Click here to view. If you are interested in the selection of Ewe cloths we have for sale at present please click here.

Strip Weave Cloth Sample Packs


Over the years a number of people have asked us for packs of sample pieces of strip woven cloth. These are a good educational resource providing a way to learn about patterns, techniques etc, as well as a useful source for collectors, quilters, and textile artists. We can put together mixed packs of strip pieces of average length about 10ins/25cm to include Asante and Ewe kente, Yoruba aso oke and others. Cloths will date from 1900 to 1990s, with most before 1950. These will be similar but not identical in content to the one illustrated. More details here

Friday, 18 December 2009

New Book on photography in Central Africa

bechaud Auguste Bechaud – Photographe-soldat en Afrique centrale by Didier Carite (Le Portfolio, 2009)

This is an important and interesting addition to the growing body of literature on early photography and postcards in Africa. Includes fascinating images of dress, tattooing, and body decoration among the Sango, Ngbugu, Yakoma, and other Central African peoples at the start of the C20th, along with some other more disturbing photographs such as the aftermath of an elephant hunt.

bechaud1 Young woman of the Gbanziri
bechaud2 Femmes d’europeans

I was particularly pleased to learn more about the origins of the above image because it has intrigued me as a postcard for some time. The lady on the left (click on the photo for a larger view) is wearing an especially elaborate strip woven wrapper cloth that certainly was not produced in central Africa. Last year in Basel Bernard Gardi and I disagreed about its origins – he thinks it is from Sierra Leone, where Mende and Vai weavers do produce cloths with blocks of oval cell-like float patterns as seen here. To me though, it looks like the work of Jukun or related weavers in the Benue valley of eastern Nigeria – they also wove the “cell” pattern but additionally the weft stripes framed by lines of weft floats. Either way it has clearly travelled far from its origins, providing a salutary reminder of the mobility of prestige textiles within Africa in the early colonial period.

The book should be available from or Soumbala or failing that direct from the author. Contact me for his email.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Artistes d'Abomey at musee du quai Branly

Until 31 January 2010 there is a superb exhibition at the musee du quai Branly, Paris, focussing on the court artists who supplied the dramatic sculpture, banners, robes etc. to the powerful Fon kingdom at Abomey in the Republic of Benin. Alongside iconic statues such as the celebrated royal "bocio" figures the exhibition provides African textile enthusiasts this provides a rare opportunity to see part of the worlds two major collections of the celebrated Fon appliqué banners, including some examples (not shown here) presented by the Fon king to the French Emperor Napoleon III in 1865.

Also of note are two fine examples of embroidered robes worn at the Abomey court. Embroidered on strip woven cloth, as in this piece, or on imported fabric, the specific cut and embroidery layout of these robes is distinctive to the Fon, despite affinities with other types in the family of West African prestige robes.

This strip woven cloth is the only example I know of in the style. According to the collection data it is said to have been woven by Yavedo and Goyomo, two wives of the Fon king Ghezo and formed part of the presentation to Napoleon III in 1865.

There is an interesting booklet "Artistes d'Abomey" (Beaux Arts editions) that accompanies the show, and a catalogue with the same title that appears not yet to be available. More info here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

More Nigerian Textiles...Jukun, Gwari, Yoruba

Just back from a brief trip to Nigeria...
Some of the new posts from our website

CODE #: AS350

Measurement: 84ins x 50ins, 214cm x 127cm

Typical example of the elaborate and complex supplementary weft float patterning once practised by weavers of the Jukun people of the Benue valley in Eastern Nigeria. Collected some years ago in the vicinity of the Jukun capital of Wukari. Jukun cloths are not well documented and are rarely available on the market. This piece is in excellent condition and dates from 1950-60. It may be compared to a piece collected in 1965 illustrated in Sieber "African Textiles and Decorative Arts" (MOMA 1972 page 188.)

CODE #: AS353
PRICE: US$1100
Measurements: 78ins x 57ins, 198cm x 144cm

Superb and rare early C20th woman's wrapper. Each strip combines fine hand spun indigo checked "etu", "guineafowl pattern," with magenta "alaari" - silk from the trans Saharan trade. It would have been an extremely expensive and prestigious cloth in its day. In searching for these early cloths I look for pieces where all the original hand stitching is intact, as here. After almost a century many have begun to come apart at the seems and been restitched using a sewing machine, often in a less than careful way. Intact pieces like this have a pleasing completeness but are extremely rare. Dates from circa 1900-1920 and is in excellent condition.

CODE #: AS349
Measurement: 65ins x 32ins, 164cm x 81cm

Woman's wrapper from the Gwari people of central Nigeria - the once obscure and remote Gwari ancestral homeland is now the site of the modern Nigerian capital of Abuja and many Gwari farmers have been displaced. These are among the strangest cloths to be found in Nigeria. Woven for the Gwari by weavers of Hausa ancestry the hand spun indigo dyed strips have regular rows of open work, broken up at a few places by blocks with a different openwork arrangement. The woven strips are then joined using a complex braiding technique that adds a long narrow open area between each strip except at the lower edge. This treatment of strips is as far as is known, unique to the Gwari. It creates a strange highly textural cloth that is oddly appealing. In excellent condition dates from around mid C20th or earlier.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Hand woven textiles in Cote D'Ivoire today..

Côte D’Ivoire is home to a fascinating diversity of textile production traditions, the vast majority of which have hardly begun to be researched. Aside from the tie dyed raffia cloths of the Dida people, most of which incidentally are actually very newly made for export sale, the collectors' market has paid little attention to Ivoirian fabrics. Over the past decade the Civil War and the uneasy peace in a divided country that has followed have made further research difficult or impossible. For this reason I was very interested in the glimpses of contemporary cloth production and use provided by the photos and short texts in a newly published book. Somewhat misleadingly titled "Arts au feminin en Côte D’Ivoire", edited by Philippe Delanne, (le cherche midi, Paris, 2009) this is a glossy government endorsed survey subsidised by the UNFPA. Alongside printed fabrics it shows people at celebrations and events wearing a wide variety of locally woven cloths. By the far the most widely illustrated are modern Baule ikat dyed cloths as shown in the first photo.
The Baule are an Akan people who migrated to their present location in central Côte D’Ivoire from Ghana in the C16th but seem only to have learnt weaving from their Dioula neighbours in the early to mid C20th. Note the standing posture of the weavers in the photo, unlike the seated style of the Asante and Ewe in Ghana. The book notes that there are around 300 weavers in a cooperative group in the village of Bomizambo 45km from Yamoussoukro.

In contrast to the Baule, the weaving of the Dan people in the central western part of the country is very obscure. Perhaps surprisingly given the attention paid to Dan masks and sculpture I am not aware of any published images before this that show Dan textiles and weaving.

Some modern Gouro cloths worn for a wedding. The lady in the centre is wearing a Baule cloth, but the woman at the left and 2nd from right wear complex weft float decorated Gouro fabrics.

Finally, a Malinké masquerader near Bondoukou wears a modern Abron cloth.

For a selection of our vintage textiles from Côte D’Ivoire see here and for further reading see here

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The "Spotted Hyena" - Dioula ikat weaving in northern Ivory Coast

A Dioula weaver at work in the square beside the mosque, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. Vintage postcard, circa 1910, author's collection.

The Dioula or Dyula are a Muslim Mande-speaking people who migrated from present day Mali into what is now northern Cote D'Ivoire and southern Burkina Faso in the sixteenth century. Specialists in long-distance trade, Islamic scholarship, and textile production the Dioula were key players in the distribution of weaving technology throughout West Africa. Dioula weavers wove cloths for their own use and for trading both locally to farming peoples such as the Senufo and Koulango, and as trade goods for their long distance caravans south to the Guinea coast and east via Bondoukou to Salaga in northern Ghana.

Key features of Dioula weaving were complex supplementary weft float motifs, the early introduction of imported red threads, and at least from the end of the C19th, the use of ikat (ikat was rare in West African weaving - the Yoruba in Nigeria were the other main practitioners of the technique.) The "spotted hyena" or "suruku kawa" was the Dioula name for the oldest of their warp ikat patterned designs, in which solid blocks of indigo blue across the whole strip width alternated along the cloth with the white cotton ground. These ikat decorated strips could be used to create an overall checker board layout of alternated with warp striped or check patterned strips.

"Elegantes de Kong" (Prouteaux 1925, p.608)

In the second half of the C20th hand-woven cloth was no longer part of everyday dress but was still in demand for weddings, festivals, and other ceremonial occasions. The suruku kawa pattern was no longer fashionable and was displaced by other ikat designs developed mainly by the Baule who had taken over and elaborated the Dioula technique.

An elderly Dioula weaver, Dar Salami, south Burkina Faso, 2004 (auther's photograph.)

Dioula cloths were not widely collected and are poorly represented in museum collections, with the exception of Basel Museum, where a number of important pieces are included in their current exhibition "Woven Beauty." We have now posted on our gallery website a fine group of mid-C20th examples collected in north east Cote D'Ivoire. For details and prices see our page here. For more on Dioula weaving see chapter by Dr Kerstin Bauer in the Basel exhibition catalogue here.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fante Asafo Flags - real or fake? - old or new ? - part two

A genuine Fante Asafo flag from our gallery, age circa 1920-40. Illustrates the proverb "we control the rooster and the clock bird", i.e. we are so strong that we can even control time.
So how do we tell a real authentic flag from a fake ? What do we mean by fake in this context ? In African art circles there is a widely accepted (albeit intellectually problematic) definition of authenticity. An authentic object is one which was made for local use and which received local use before being sold. An object that was made specifically to be sold on the art market or tourist market is not considered to be authentic and except in exceptional cases will never have any significant monetary value however nice it looks. Both the condition and the design of flags provide useful indications of age and authenticity. Flags that have received local use over any significant length of time show signs of that use such as small marks, holes, stains, bleaching from the sun, colour run, damage to and curling of the tassels on the border etc. Contrary to what some dealers in the Accra tourist market hope, leaving a new flag on the roof for a few days in the rainy season does not closely mimic the effect of local use, it just makes a new flag look dusty and rained on. Old fabric has a different look and feel from new that is extremely hard to fake. So luckily if you look carefully it is very easy to distinguish new flags from old.
Turning to the design, the first important point to note is that contrary to what is often asserted the use of a version of the British Union flag in the corner (the canton) does NOT mean that the flag was made before Ghanaian independence in 1957. Clearly a Ghana flag indicates a date after 1957 when it was adopted, but the reverse is not true. There could be a number of reasons why locally used flags were still ordered with the Union Jack canton, most obviously to replace an important old flag that was damaged beyond use. Moreover the flags made in the last decade for sale in the Accra art market almost invariably have the British flag.

This is an authentic, well made and designed post-Independence flag from the collection of the Textile Museum, Washington. It illustrates the boast " We can carry water in a basket using a cactus as a head cushion" i.e. "we can do the impossible."

Genuine flags were individually ordered, usually from a professional flag maker, by Asafo society officers, to mark their promotion to a higher rank, and the design was a carefully thought out project intended to communicate a specific saying or to mark a particular historical event. As a result most authentic flags have a design coherence, graphic sensibility, and visual impact that is immediately apparent. On the other hand when a dealer places a bulk order for ten pieces to be delivered as soon as possible, the result is usually slapdash workmanship, meaningless designs or poor copies, and a resulting lack of visual impact. I am not going to post one of these but a quick search on Google or Ebay will bring up numerous examples.
One final clue is to look at the price. Authentic old flags are now very hard to source and sell internationally for thousands of dollars. Flags that are for sale for a few hundred dollars are very unlikely to be old...
Buying new flags, providing you know that they are new, and you are paying the right new price for them, gives much needed income to very poor people in Ghanaian villages. There is nothing wrong with new flags as such, they become "fakes" when someone sells them as old. Most are poorly made but if you look carefully and choose examples that are well designed and well made your purchase will also encourage the continuation of old traditions of artistry and skill. There are still some flag makers doing good work and more sales would encourage them to continue. Below is a fine new flag I found while researching this post - more here

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Fante Asafo Flags - real or fake? - part one

A high percentage of the Fante Asafo flags for sale on the net are recently made copies or "fakes." Today's post (a flag from a private collection in Italy, circa 1930-40s) is a quick reminder of how wonderful genuine flags from the Fante Asafo societies can be. I am working on a longer post on this subject but in the meantime for further info see here and here..

Friday, 16 October 2009

Couverture Personnages - strip woven wedding hangings from Mali

In the 1950s large brightly coloured blankets called tapis with solid blocks of colour began to be a fashionable gift at weddings, beginning to displace older traditions of indigo blue and white cotton and brown wool blankets. They were used to adorn the walls of the house during weddings and as covers for the newly imported iron beds. At some point in the 1960s one master weaver called Abdurrahman Bura Bocoum reconfigured this new style of coloured blankets so that the weft blocks depicted large figures of humans and animals. Soldiers became the predominant theme of these cloths following the military coup in Mali in 1968. It is not known when he died, but Bocoum was succeeded by at least three other weavers. One of this second generation, also now dead, was Mama Diarra Kiba, who wove the yellow ground cloth shown above, which is now on our website here.

This piece with thinner, arguably cruder, figures is by Jaara Ila Jigannde.

The best known of this second generation of weavers is Oumar Bocoum, shown here. Now an elderly man who no longer weaves, his work featured in the African Textile exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, and at the Kennedy Center in 1995. The remaining cloths shown here are a selection of typical Oumar Bocoum pieces. They would have been commissioned from the weaver as prestige hangings for display during a wedding, then later sold. We also have a Bocoum blanket at our gallery - more details here. For more information see Bernhard Gardi ed. "Woven Beauty: The Art of West African Textiles" (Basel, 2009).

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Nupe woman weaver.

Taken in the small town of Lafiagi near the river Niger in central Nigeria in 2006, the photo shows a Nupe woman weaving a two panel wrapper cloth. The Nupe live to the north and north east of the Yoruba, mainly in Niger State, and today make up probably the second most numerous group of female weavers in the country after the Ebira. To see some Nupe cloths and other Nigerian women's cloths visit our website at

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Beyond the Kuba in Congo surface design

The embroidered and appliquéd raffia cloths of the Kuba peoples of Congo are very familiar to collectors of African textiles and to all those with an interest in indigenous African design. Remarkable and beautiful though the finest Kuba cloths were, they are only the best known and most easily found of what was once an extensive variety of raffia textiles woven by almost all peoples of the Congo basin. Today it seems likely that only Kuba cloths are still made in Congo and the few non-Kuba examples that occasionally reach the market come mainly from old European collections assembled in the colonial period. The best place to see examples from these other areas is in museum collections, some of which are now accessible on-line. I will have more to say about these in subsequent posts.

Last week at a small "tribal" art fair here in London I greatly admired an early C20th mat attributed by the dealer to the Mangbetu people. It reminded me to look again at this obscure and unjustly neglected aspect of surface design in Congo. These amazing and exceptionally rare examples are all from the collection of the Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium. As yet they are not on-line - these images are scanned from COART, E. La Nattes. Annales du Musée du Congo (1927)