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.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Details: reverse face of a Yoruba agbada embroidery



Two views of the reverse face of the embroidered spiral on the back of an early Yoruba agbada men’s robe at our shop. Most robes of this period are lined in the neck and pocket area with imported pale blue trade cloth, but in this example indigo dyed strip weave asooke is used to rather pleasing effect.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

New Exhibition–“At Home in Africa” at Cleveland State University


The Galleries at CSU


Design, Beauty and Pleasing Irregularity in Domestic Settings
Thursday, August 28 – Saturday, October 4, 2014

At Home in Africa is an exhibition that features the inspirational and creative design, pattern and form found in a wide variety of traditional handcrafted objects from African homes of the past 130 years, covering over 70 ethnic groups from 30 countries.

The 300-plus objects bring the variety of life in African homes to the forefront, spotlighting the handcrafted beauty apparent in everyday objects. The designs of these objects feature amazing diversity in technique and creativity. An appreciation of the daily rhythms of life are paired with an intent to provide inspiration to designers of all types—graphic, fashion, interior, jewelry—and an up-close example of the reason so many African works are such a part of global design influence.”

A catalogue is, or will be published. There is an attractive website here and a very useful Pinterest page here.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

“Lightning Strikes”–a unique embroidered Yoruba cloth.


Amongst the Yoruba and other Nigerian peoples embroidery was not a domestic pastime but a  professional skill exercised by full or part-time male craftsmen, most if not all of whom were Muslim. Perhaps as a result the technique was applied only in specific contexts, notably in the decoration of male ceremonial robes and trousers. Recognised patterns were handed on from one generation to the next,often in Koranic schools, and although designs could be modified over time and n0vel variations introduced, these took place within an established repertoire and context. This repertoire was based to a large extent on Islamic inspired motifs shared, with local variants, across a wide area of West Africa.

In addition to its intrinsic beauty, the cloth we are looking at today is notable as an exceptional example of Yoruba embroidery in an unexpected context and in an otherwise unfamiliar style. As this is the only known example to date we cannot know whether it represents a unique and idiosyncratic innovation or whether its use was once more widespread.


The cloth ( click on the photo to enlarge) is a woman’s ceremonial wrapper cloth, woven by a woman weaver using a vertical single heddle loom, in two panels joined horizontally at the centre. It is woven  from quite fine hand spun indigo dyed cotton and pink, probably cochineal dyed, silk from the trans-Saharan caravan trade. Comparison with related cloths in museum collections, and the use of silk, allow it to be dated to around the end of the nineteenth century or the early years of the twentieth. Quite unusually for this type of cloth the use of a repeated pattern of stripes in the weft, partially but not entirely hidden by the predominance of the warp, allows for a subtle check effect in the paler blue areas. The use of silk, along with the sophistication of the weaving and the fineness of the thread, tell us that this was a prestige piece commissioned at considerable expense, for the use of a high status patron.


The embroidery using the same pink silk as the ground cloth, along with three shades of indigo dyed cotton, is in the form of repeated clusters of zigzags of various lengths. The layout of embroidery contrasts in colour with the background and the placement seems most focussed on the area of the cloth that would be visible in use. The similarity in the colours chosen, in particular the rather unusual shade of pink, suggests the embroidery was done quite soon after the cloth was woven.

Why might a wealthy Yoruba woman at the turn of the nineteenth century choose to have zigzags woven on her expensive wrapper cloth ? We can only speculate based on the association of zigzag designs in other contexts in Yoruba visual culture.


The sculpture above [source IMO DARA on Pinterest], called an arugba Sango, is a bowl supported by a cluster of figures, dominated by a female devotee. It would have formed part of the cult paraphernalia of the Yoruba  orisa (deity), Shango,  god of thunder and lightning, and have contained the collection of Neolithic stone axe heads that were believed to be the physical embodiment of thunderbolts. The zigzag designs painted on both the bowl and the female figure depict the power of Shango in its manifestation as thunder and lightning.

Female devotees played a prominent role in the cult of Shango and I would suggest that the reiteration of the motif on our cloth is most likely an indicator that it was owned and worn by a high status woman who was an important follower of the Yoruba thunder deity.

The cloth is now in a UK private collection. To view some of our current stock of Nigerian women’s weave textiles click here.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Ewe kente covers latest “World of Interiors”


One of two rare Ewe cloths we sold many years back to antiques dealer Peter Hinwood that feature prominently in this months World of Interiors…

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A fine Arkilla Kerka from Mali


After a special request by Bernhard Gardi for some wool cloths on the blog after he complained “always kente kente kente”, today we look at a notably fine wool and cotton wedding hanging from Mali, of the type called arkilla kerka.

In his catalogue Woven Beauty: The Art of West African Textiles (Basel, 2009 – incidentally the best book published on African Textiles) Gardi notes:

“The kerka is the ‘mother of all arkilla.’ They are no longer produced today. A kerka consists of six patterned strips, occasionally a seventh strip, striped black and white and called sigaretti (from the French ‘cigarette’), is added and used for hanging up the blanket. The white sections and the warp are made of cotton, the rest is wool. Black is never applied, only dark indigo blue. A kerka blanket of the highest quality requires between 25,000 and 30,000 metres of hand-spun yarn.”


This example was collected in Bamako by an English family in the 1950s and is now in the Musée di Quai Branly, Paris. It is an old well used piece with exceptionally fine weaving. Gardi commented “There are very nice noppi nawliraaBe motives, 'ears of the co-wive'. Looks very much as woven from a weaver who was equally weaving arkilla jenngo blankets. That means, that kerka does not come from the Guimballa area (East of Lake Debo) but from Niafunke or further North-West.”



Click on the photos to enlarge.