Friday, 2 December 2011

“Fugu for life” by Kofi Akpabli

shared from Ghana Business News

“Batakari has spoken, who needs a suit?
From Fufulso towards Fulaniland
Fugu is king
Batakari has spoken, who needs a suit?


The fugu smock is the most distinctive dress from Northern Ghana. The striking garment dates way back but the way men and women drape it in recent times reflect style and modernism.  Also known in southern Ghana as batakari, fugu has evolved from a native wear to a recognisable fashion statement awaiting its turn at the international catwalk.

Fugu is a practical dress which provides protection for the body against both heat and cold. Compared to the kente fabric native to the Ashanti and Volta Regions, fugu is much rougher and a little less colourful. But its attractiveness and ready to-use mode makes it a must-have in everybody’s wadrobe.

Typically, the fugu gown is round necked, with short sleeves that have a rather wide opening.  The smock is a plaid garment that is similar to joromi or the danshiki which originates from Nigeria. From the waist on, the dress spreads in a funnel shape sometimes reaching ankle length. The beauty of this shape is seen when men do the damba dance with the edge of the smock going round in circles.

The fugu smock usually has embroidery on the neckline with a small V-cut above the chest. It has two hidden pockets which, but for the embroidery will be hidden.

Unlike the kente cloth, the boubou or the Japanese kimono which are all traditional wears for special occasions, fugu is an everyday garb. Because it hangs loosely it is easy to wear and work with, while offering grace to the wearer.

The fugu fabric is made from cotton which is processed into threads by women, dyed and then woven into strips or stoles. The strips are about four inches wide and their thickness   depends on the number of threads used. The weaving takes place in simple hand looms. To make clothes, a collection of strips are sewn together. This may be machine sewn or hand made.

Not all fugu fabrics are the same. For instance, there is the plain calico type which originates from the Upper West Region. In a way, this contrasts with the thicker, multi-colour patterned ones from Daboya in the Gonja area of the Northern Region.

The fugu smock is easily adaptable. Apart from the typical design described above, there are other variations which are more or less elaborate. A simplified version is the tight-fitting, almost-sleeveless one that reaches the waist. A related variation also flows up to the waist but without ending in the skirt-shape.

In contrast, there are the more elaborate styles such as those which come complete with the fugu smock itself, a covering gown and a pair of drawstring trousers all in the fabric. The trousers or pantalon have an exaggerated pouch between the legs. To top it up, there is a cap also in  fugu. You may call this the fugu three-piece.  It is usually worn by chiefs on ceremonial occasions.

It could be said that it is in the women’s domain that much of the innovations of fugu is realised.  Women look trendy in the traditional smock design. They wear this with a pair of shorts or knickers sewn with the fabric. Then there is the fugu blouse which is worn over a cloth tied round the lower half of the female shape. On another level, it is fashionable for females to use the fugu material for kaba and slit. Finally, fugu can be made into one  flowing dress from the shoulders to the heels. Of course, trust our ladies to crown each of these styles with a piece of fugu as head gear.

In Ghana, the fugu smock assumed great significance when President Nkrumah chose to wear it in declaring Ghana’s independence. Indeed, a look at the dais on the historic moment of 6th March 1957 would show that all his aides were in fugu. It would be naive for anyone to think that the dress code for that grand occasion was for nothing.

When the fugu dress is worn the wearer conveys a sense of conservatism and equality. Fugu looks good on both men and women just as it does for the young the old. The smock is also the mode of dress for both rich and poor.

Adopting the fugu conveys an ability to co-exist. It is a dress for all. Christians wear it. Muslims wear it. Traditionalists, too, wear it. In terms of occasions, it can be worn practically for any social event. In fact, in Ghanaian society it is about the only attire that can pass for formal as well as casual. For some men, there is nothing more attractive than wearing the smock over a neatly worn shirt and tie.

That the fugu fabric lasts long is without a shred of doubt. In fact, a piece of fugu cloth can be worn for life. Curiosly, as the fabric ages, it assumes one attractive phase to another. For some, the older and jaded the smock gets the more they value it. This is especially true for the elderly. When old folks say ‘my fugu has seen more tatters than yours’ it means that they are older and thus have had more of life’s experiences. In truth, one mustn’t be surprised by this attitude of cherishing a worn out piece of clothing. The practice is only similar to how the youth adore and flaunt worn-out jeans. It is the same old vibe.

On a more serious note, fugu is not just a piece of garment. The cloth serves as the backdrop for expressing communal codes. It is also one of the items that embodies traditional values. Often, symbolic patterns are embossed on the front and back. Common examples of these motifs are the heart or stars. Lately, ‘foreign’ concepts such as adinkra symbols are fitted in. It must also be noted that there is currently an introduction of brighter colours other than the traditional shades of blue, black and white.

Among the Dagaabas of the Upper West Region, the dress is known as ‘Dagarkparlo’ meaning ‘a Dagarti man’s wear.’  For Northern Chiefs, fugu is a mandatory costume. To some extent, the smock or batakari  is also seen as a war dress. In this regard, it is adorned with protective amulets. For a man’s last respect, he is laid in state dressed in fugu. He is also buried in it.

Fugu, today, has become the basis for a vibrant traditional textile industry across Northern Ghana. From Bolgatanga through Tamale to Daboya young people, especially are actively producing to meet growing demand. The industry revolves around dyeing, weaving, sewing and designing.

Beyond Ghana, people of African descent are also taking a liking to fugu. Perhaps, in portrayal of Nkrumah’s ‘African Personality,’ many wear the Northern Ghana smock in America, Europe and the Caribbeans. Fugu is beautiful, modest and flamboyant. The good news is that it does not appear that it will be disappearing into history any moment soon.

By Kofi Akpabli

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Kuba Images online at Smithsonian Eliot Elisofon Photograph Archives

Kuba elders and warriors dressed for the state visit of the Nyim

Some Kuba textiles in use as court regalia, 1970. These are just a glimpse of the wonderful set of photographs taken by Life photographer Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973) of the Kuba royal court in 1970. To see more, and many other remarkable photos, visit the Smithsonian archive here.

Kuba Nyim (ruler) Kot a Mbweeky III, Bungamba village, Congo

Ngady Amwaash masked dancer, Mushenge, Congo

Wives of Kuba Nyim (ruler) Kot a-Mbweeky III, Mushenge, Congo (Democratic Republic)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fulani Woman by Monique Cras, Africaniste painter


Watercolour, Femme Foulah – Dalaba, Guinee, 1939, by Monique Cras (Christie’s Amsterdam, 24/5/2000 lot 173. )

Monique Cras (1910-2007) is one of my favourite artists of the French and Belgian Africaniste school, notable for her sensitive studies of both men and women in French colonial Africa. I will post a larger group of images of her work soon. Click on images to enlarge.


Vintage postcard, circa 1920, publisher & photographer unknown, author’s collection. Fulani or Peul woman.

Adire African Textiles mailing list


We are now doing a monthly mailing list that will summarize updates on our website, blog, any additional news, etc. If you are interested please follow this link to our website and enter your email in the box provided: Adire African Textiles.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Kuba: some early textiles and photographs


In this post, to mark the on-going Kuba textile exhibition at the Textile Museum, Washington, we will look at some fine images of textile production and use among the Kuba, plus a couple of cloths from notable early collections. These photographs were taken by the Polish photographer Casimir Zagourski (1883-1944, )who lived in Leopoldville, in the then Belgian Congo, from 1924 until his death. They form part of a large series of images that Zagourski distributed in the 1930s as postcards and complete albums under the title L’Afrique qui disparait. These were published in a book Lost Africa by Pierre Loos (Skira, 2001). For more information on Zagourski see C. Geary, In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa 1885-1960 (National Museum of African Art, 2002).  Click on any image to enlarge.





The earliest foreign visitor who was able to reach the capital of the Kuba kingdom was the African American missionary William H. Sheppard, in 1892. The large collection of artefacts he assembled, including the cut pile embroidered panel below, is now in Hampton University Museum, VA and is the most important source of information on Kuba material culture in the late C19th. See the Center for African Art catalogue Art/Artifact (1988) for more details.


The next important visitor to document the Kuba kingdom and its neighbours was the Hungarian ethnographer Emil Torday (1875-1931.) Torday’s extensive collections of Kuba and related objects gathered between 1900-1909 are now in the British Museum, London, and the MRAC, Tervuren, Belgium. For more information see John Mack, Emil Torday and the Art of the Congo 1900-1909 (British Museum Press, 1990). For some of Torday’s own photographs and an article see here. Torday collected the panel below which is now in the British Museum (Af1979,01.2675.)


Friday, 11 November 2011

New book: “Mama Casset”


“African Studio: The photographs of Mama Casset (1908-1992) reflect a privileged moment for Senegal. They capture a bourgeoisie still distinguished by showy splendour where each detail was a mark of elegance…..”

Click the back cover below to read on.



Wonderful photos – Available now from

Monday, 7 November 2011

Blue Notes

If today people associate African fabrics with the bright colours of wax prints, lace, and kente,  as recently as the 1960s indigo blue cloths were ubiquitous throughout much of West Africa.  Indigo still dominates the stacked piles of vintage fabrics in my shop and still underlies many later developments in local textile design. Yet only a few quite isolated pockets of natural indigo production and use still remain in remote regions in West Africa itself. The personal journey of discovery that led her to investigate some of those often elusive surviving traces forms the subject of Catherine E. McKinley’s recent book Indigo: in Search of the Color that Seduced the World (Bloomsbury, 2011).


Catherine was the first person to buy a cloth from my first website back in the mid 1990s so we have been talking about indigo and I have been waiting to see this book for a long time. For me it captures both the rewards and the occasional frustrations of a long engagement with West Africa and its people as much as its textile traditions. A blend of social history, ethnography, travel, personal encounter and autobiography in a mix that is at times lyrical, at times less comfortable, it is a fine book that adds something unusual and distinctive to the literature on Africa’s textile history.

Also well worth noting for anyone interested in indigo is this new documentary film, available on DVD - Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo ( . If Catherine’s book draws our attention to the decline in indigo traditions in Africa, this beautiful film, directed by Mary Lance, looks at current attempts to revive indigo use and maintain important traditions both in Nigeria and in many other parts of the world.


Monday, 31 October 2011

Agbada, Riga, Boubou… Nigerian prestige gowns.




For some sources this motif is a Sufi inspired spiral towards the infinite. For others it is just the moon. My focus today is just on the graphic beauty it displays. For front views and more details  on these two early robes see our gallery here.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

“Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa”–major new exhibition now at the Textile Museum, Washington.


Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the opening of this important new show and the accompanying Fall Symposium at the Textile Museum. This is a beautifully presented show, with each piece carefully mounted, sensitively lit, and displayed against a restrained chocolate brown background that does justice to the artistry and variety of superb Kuba textiles on view. The wider context of Central African raffia art was shown by the inclusion of a small number of textiles from other regional traditions (more are shown in the catalogue) and by a group of fine baskets, primarily from the Tutsi and Hutu peoples of Rwanda. The Textile Museum and the curator, Vanessa Drake Moraga, are to be congratulated on this splendid exhibition.

Below is the gallery guide. Click on each image for a larger view.







The exhibition catalogue is available from the Textile Museum. Click on the image below:


Finally there is a program of events to accompany the show. Click to view.


Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Weaving the Threads of Livelihood: the aesthetic and embodied knowledge of Berber weavers–new exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London


“The Sirwa is situated at the junction of the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. The Berber weavers of the Sirwa are renowned for their wide range of textiles and their technical knowledge and artistry. In addition to embroidery and sprang (an ancient precursor of knitting), female Sirwa weavers master several weaving techniques: tapestry weaving, twinning, brocading and knotting, which they use individually or in combination. Since the 1980s weaving production has intensified, this activity occupying most of the households in the region and constituting a major livelihood option complementing subsistence agriculture.

The central piece of the exhibition will be a special 19th century cloak, the akhnif, (loaned by the British Museum) a garment unique to Morocco that has inspired the production of a new type of carpet in the 1990s, and variants since. In the exhibition, many of these richly coloured, densely embellished and painstakingly crafted carpets will be displayed. They demonstrate the dynamism and creativity of Sirwa weavers who exploit and continuously update their rich weaving tradition to produce a great variety of weavings for the international market. This will be the first exhibition dedicated to contemporary textiles production in Morocco.

Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to watch as the Sirwa weavers demonstrate their technical skills on equipment especially brought from Morocco and can even try their own hand at weaving. They will be given the opportunity to touch many items displayed in the exhibition, to handle tools (spindles, cards and beating combs) and textures (yarns and weaving samples) and to experience the carpets.

A one-day international conference on Moroccan textiles will take place in conjunction with the exhibition. The conference will explore Moroccan textiles in their historical and social context; contemporary Moroccan textile designers and artists will present their work and creations.”

I may have more information on this in a week or two when I have had time to check it out.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Asafo Company Banner–over 5 metres long


Superb and dramatic Asafo company banner, made for the Number 2 Company in the village of Otuamkesi. The style suggests the banner was made around mid C20th, probably in a workshop in the village of Saltpond or Kromantse.  Depicts dramatic battle scenes of decapitation and mutilation as a warning to the enemies of the Company.

These long banners are very rare - this is only the second I have collected. They were made as a public demonstration of prosperity by a wealthy Company, and the longest examples were many times larger than this. Condition is good, with minor losses to the border and two places where small tears have been sewn up.  Details and more Asafo flags in our gallery here

Saturday, 10 September 2011

“Congo” cloths and Ewe weft float pattern making.


Elephant design from a fine 1960s example of a  distinctive style of Ewe cloth woven from rayon with a large variety of figurative and geometric supplementary weft float motifs on a plain background.  Motifs on this chief’s ceremonial robe cloth include animals, insects, birds, umbrellas, airplanes, forks, stools, leaves etc.


Unlike the designs on most Ewe cloths, the supplementary weft float motifs on this cloth and others of the same type are not identical on both faces of the fabric. Instead the full design appears on the front and only an outline on the reverse. This is because, rather than using the second set of heddles that group warps in sets of 6 or 8 threads  to create the float motifs (so the extra weft goes over 8 warps then under 8 warps etc) the weavers pick out the design by hand, moving the weft over 8 then just under one...

Normal Ewe weft float pattern woven using second set of heddles:


Hand picked “one-sided” float pattern:


According to Malika Kraamer in her PhD thesis, this technique, which was developed by coastal Ewe weavers in the early decades of the C20th, is called "asidanuvo," meaning cloth with hand picked design. In the 1970s large numbers of rayon cloths with simpler, slightly larger motifs in this style were sold for export to Congo, with the result that the style became called Congo cloth by Ewe weavers.






This is an exceptional example, probably dating from around 1960, and in excellent condition. Details, size etc, and more Ewe textiles in our gallery here

Friday, 26 August 2011

Some more Ewe cloths on our gallery today


This Ewe woman's cloth from the Volta region of Ghana is an example of the influence of Asante kente cloths on Ewe textile design. An Asante style border at each end of the cloth frames a central field in which figurative and geometric supplementary weft float motifs are scattered. Rayon floats and borders on a cotton ground. Cloth has a small frayed area along part of one edge but otherwise is in good condition. It dates from circa 1950.  For details and other vintage Ewe textiles see our gallery here

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Central African Textiles: Art and Cultural Narrative–fall symposium at the Textile Museum, Washington


“This weekend-long symposium brings The Textile Museum’s fall exhibition, Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa, to life. Join renowned scholars and authors as they shed light on why Kuba textiles are considered among the most beautiful and influential of African art forms.

Emerging in the early 17th century, the Kuba kingdom grew into a powerful and wealthy confederation of nearly 20 different ethnic groups located in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kuba are renowned as masters of the textile arts and surface design. The improvisational, abstract aesthetic of Kuba textiles captivated the members of the European avant-garde movement between 1910 and 1930, and its influences can be seen through modernism, fashion, fabric design, and the decorative arts.

Six presenters will place this artistic tradition in the context of Central African culture and the world of ritual the textiles were created for, in addition to exploring the lasting influence of their striking designs.”

Full details here

Very interesting program with well chosen speakers. I hope to be there…

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Fante Asafo Flag–new update


Charming old flag with a car and two men in front of a road block / barrier with a sign reading "Road Close."  Background is felt. Good condition, minor marks.  Dates from circa 1930 - 50s.  Details and other flags in our gallery here.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

African Headwear: Beyond Fashion–new exhibition at Dallas Museum of Art


August 14, 2011–January 1, 2012
Focus Gallery I

African Headwear: Beyond Fashion, an exhibition of approximately fifty objects from the Museum’s collection of African art, internationally acclaimed as one of the top five of its kind in the United States, explores the way in which headwear signifies status in traditional African societies. Often made of unusual materials, such as the skin from a pangolin (spiny anteater), wood and copper, various types of nutshells, lion mane, and human hair, African headwear can also include glass beads, plastic buttons, and ostrich feathers used in unfamiliar ways.

For example, a sacred crown worn by Yoruba kings in Nigeria is lavishly beaded and adorned with sculpted birds and modeled human faces. Tiered basketry hats worn by Ekonda chiefs from the Democratic Republic of the Congo feature hammered brass discs. Baule chiefs in the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) wear velvet pillbox-style hats on which symbolic gold-leaf ornaments are attached.

Among the exhibition’s highlights, which also include significant works from local private collections, is a work from the Lega, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a man wearing a hat adorned with elephant tails would be recognized as belonging to the highest level of the association.

Another hat is something a Himba bride from southern Africa would wear on her wedding day. Made of soft calfskin imbued with butter and red ocher and decorated with iron beads, its large earflaps prevent the bride from looking in any direction but forward—toward her new husband’s home.

African Headwear: Beyond Fashion is organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and curated by Roslyn A. Walker, Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.


Diviners headdress (nkaka), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tabwa, mid-20th century, leather, fiber, beads, and feathers, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of The Cecil and Ida Green Foundation, 1999.62”

Friday, 29 July 2011

Mangbetu hairstyle, Congo, 1958


Vintage postcard. Just a beautiful photo, posted for no particular reason…..

Friday, 22 July 2011

An exceptional silk Asante kente cloth



Superb and very rare museum quality Asante silk kente, early C20th, in the "mmeeda" pattern. Very finely woven supplementary weft float motifs in soft subtle colours on a muted green ground. Collected in the 1970s and in an English private collection since. Ross 1998:115 notes mmeeda means "something extraordinary" and cites Rattray (1927:241) "Asonawo mmada" - "the father of King Bonsu Panyin was Owusu Ansa, who belonged to the Asona clan, the first of that clan ever to be father of an Asante king." Details on our website here.


Some Asante kente cloths are woven from cotton, a very few highly prized heirloom pieces are silk, but the vast majority are woven from rayon, which was adopted by Asante weavers as a substitute for more expensive silk soon after it became commercially available, at least by the 1930s/40s. We focus as far as possible on  rare silk pieces rather than the more readily available rayon ones (which can be picked up  on Ebay for a few $100.)  Careful attention and a trained eye attuned to the nuances of Asante textile design will be rewarded by a greater appreciation of the skill shown by those weavers working for Asante kings and chiefs.  I assess the quality of Asante kente primarily on the scale and variety in the weft faced patterns - an exceptional example should have a wide range of motifs built up of very well executed small scale shapes rather than larger blocks of colour. Pieces of this quality are extremely hard to find and are poorly represented in museum collections, with the exception of those collected during the early 1970s by Venice Lamb (cloths now at the Smithsonian)  and Brigitte Menzel (cloths now in Leiden, Berlin and Krefeld). Their relative scarcity can be attributed to the fact that top pieces were woven in very small numbers for royal use and were property of the stool rather than the individual ruler. To view our current stock click here.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

West African Textiles from the Karun Thakar Collection now online…


Men’s wrapper cloth, Abron or Koulango peoples, Bondoukou region, Ivory Coast, circa 1900 (Photo from

The Summer 2011 issue of Hali magazine ( features the textile collection of the British collector and dealer Karun Thakar, who was for a number of years an active presence in Portobello Road. African textiles are only a small part of a vast collection of cloths and artefacts, many of museum quality and international significance, from many regions of the world. Karun was an enthusiastic (and still sadly missed) buyer in the textile market of Accra for a number of years, and together with his purchases in Portobello Road and other places, this enabled him to assemble a remarkable African collection including numerous early pieces.

Over the last few months Karun has been posting a selection of pieces from each area of his collection on line at a new website . Navigation on the site is slightly eccentric but a drop down menu at the upper right gives us an option to click on West African Textiles, bringing up four pages of thumbnail images. Some of these lead to single items, others to groups of cloths (click on the “read more” tag not the enlarge button.) Among them are several notable Nigerian cloths, an exceptional group of early Ewe and Asante cloths, and some fine early painted Islamic wrappers.


Woman’s wrapper with supplementary warp float designs, central Nigeria, possibly Jukun, C19th or early C20th. An extremely rare piece is an as yet unidentified style. (Photo from


Men’s wrapper, silk and cotton, Asante, Ghana, C19th. (Photo from


Men’s wrapper, cotton, Ewe, Ghana, early C20th. (Photo from


Men’s wrapper, cotton, painted design of Islamic amulets, made in Ghana by Hausa Koranic scholar, probably for a Fante chief, early C20th. See Hali #168 for another exceptional cloth of this type. (Photo from


Cloth in unidentified style, C19th. Catalogued as Mali, but I would suggest an example of Malian influence on the periphery of Ghanaian weaving, either in Togo or perhaps in Ivory Coast. (Photo from