The QCC Art Gallery of the City University of New York

Kuba Textiles by The Sam and Mei-Ling Collection
Kuba Textiles
The Sam and Mei-Ling Collection
November 7th - January 29th, 2009
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From my gallery years in the 1970s to 1990s, and up through the present, I have had the good fortune to know and befriend Irwin Hersey and Sam Hilu. As I became more and more involved in writing and curating exhibitions of African art on the East Coast, they have been wonderful collaborators and resources on many projects.

The field of African art has developed at a phenomenal pace since the initial flood of American collectors in the 1960s. In the ensuing years, tastes have changed and collections have matured. As a result, American collectors have had access to an abundance and wide variety of African art and, thus, an opportunity to study it more closely. At the same time, scholarship on African art has grown exponentially through African Studies programs at universities, the publication of monographs and books, and the numerous exhibitions of African art held throughout the country. In the past fifty years, scholars first compared African art to cubism, and later to many other “isms” including abstractionism, minimalism, symbolism, and so on—each new era of western art finding a correlative in the African arts.

Over time, aesthetic values have developed to include everyday African art and artifacts that were not studied or collected before. One new source of study is Kuba textiles and Kuba wooden artifacts which form this exhibition and come from Sam Hilu’s collection. These works exhibit a sense of design and symbolism that is unique to the Kuba culture. The range and diversity of textile designs is staggering. Made with exquisite craftsmanship, in bold configurations, with lavish decoration, and frequent improvisation, Kuba textiles are viscerally attractive. Likewise, their richly ornamented wooden artifacts are finely cut, interlaced with geometric patterns, and display the skilled workmanship and preference for complex patterning of the Kuba people. These cups, boxes, divination crocodiles, smoking pipes, drums, and other pieces are all covered with linear and geometrical motifs.

The best known Kuba textile is the Kuba skirt. The Kuba skirt has frequently been compared to modern art of the 20th century because, unrolled and laid flat, the skirt is similar to a canvas: a large cloth rectangle with an abstract design. As in modern art, a Kuba skirt may depict simple fields of color, or have strong, simplified patterning. Other Kuba skirts are full of complex geometrical shapes and unexpected details. The overall designs may be symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Moreover, as the recent Cameroon exhibition at the QCC art gallery demonstrates, the art and artifacts of African culture are more interrelated than was previously imagined. All objects, large and small, special occasion and everyday, are components of the traditions, history, and aesthetics of its people.

In this exhibition, “high art” and “low art” come together and merge the definitions of art versus decoration. The Kuba’s complex geometric decorations on their textiles and wooden objects allow us to test these concepts and redefine them. In this re-evaluation and rediscovery, African art is a never-ending source of inspiration, wonder, and stimulation.

We are deeply indebted to Sam Hilu for lending his comprehensive Kuba textile collection and wooden artifacts to this exhibition. These objects greatly contribute to our knowledge of African art and the ever-changing understanding of cultures, functions, and concepts.

Leonard Kahan

By Irwin Hersey

The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among the most design-conscious of all Africa’s native cultures. The surface of virtually every object made by the Kuba, and their sub-groups, is covered with an abundant variety of abstract designs: textiles, masks, sculptural figures, religious artifacts, and utilitarian articles.

Of all the objects made by the Kuba (who call themselves “Bushoong”), it is their raffia plush or cut-pile weavings—commonly referred to as “Kuba cloths”—that are the best-known, and most collected and studied. However, the raffia plush is only one type among a host of different textiles woven by the Kuba. In this exhibition, there are samples of Kuba appliqués, satins, brocades, taffetas, damasks, sheers, and tie-dyes. These textiles are made solely from raffia, bark-cloth, or cotton—as the materials of silk and wool were completely unknown to them.

Raffia cloth is made by Kuba men from a grassy fiber extracted from the young leaves of a local palm tree (Raffia Ruffia or R. Taedigera). The soft tissue of the underside of the leaf is stripped away with the edge of a knife or peeled off by hand, leaving behind the upper epidermis. Then each fiber is split lengthwise with the fingers or a snail shell, producing a silky strand 2-3 feet long. These strands are then woven into a luxurious and silky cloth.

Kuba cloths are produced on single-heddle looms, although many shed sticks are often used to make difficult or complicated patterns. Looms are set up vertically in Northern Kuba territory, and on the oblique, or slanting, in the South. The vertically mounted loom is easier to assemble and usually has a more solid base, but it demands a much more uncomfortable working position.

It is the men who weave the basic cloth, and then it is carefully embroidered by Kuba women and decorated with an endless variety of geometric patterns. The cloth has a distinctive texture, much like velvet. Woven materials are used by most Congo ethnic groups for clothing. They are also used as currency (more frequently in the past than today), and for shrouds—although funeral cloth is generally not patterned or only slightly patterned. Raffia cloth is for general daily use, while bark cloth is reserved for ceremonial use.

Kuba cloth has been known in the West for almost 500 years, and was first brought to Europe as early as the mid-17th century. The oldest examples may be seen in museums in Ulm, Germany; the Royal Danish Art Gallery; the Luigi Pigorihi Museum in Rome; and the British Museum. Today, large collections can be found in most ethnographic museums around the world.

The origin of the patterns used in Kuba cloth, and also found frequently in their masks and sculptures, is an open question. Some ideas for the patterns can be traced to the estuary of the Congo River and a neighboring culture, the Pende. The looped ribbon design, a traditional Kuba motif, was adopted from the Pende and appears not only in textiles, but also on many other objects such as storage boxes, pipes, and enema tubes.

Two other Kuba sub-groups, the Kel and the Shoowa, use another embroidery technique to produce Greek meander designs. There are also many designs which incorporate spiral forms which are often square rather than circular.

The Kuba’s obsession with creating a multiplicity of patterns has led the mathematician Donald Crow to observe that the Kuba have used twelve out of the seventeen types of possibilities of covering a surface with a self-repeating pattern—a truly remarkable mathematical feat.

However, it is not only the geometrical patterns that distinguish Kuba textiles. The relationships between the designs and abstract forms are generally unexpected, and appear to have been left to chance. These designs are, in actuality, carefully thought out and plotted. For example, the motifs on the plush cloths consist entirely of lozenges, rectangles, and triangles, and these traditional cloths are made in only two colors, black (or dark brown) and beige.1 Curvilinear elements do not appear in the plush cloths. This particular motif tradition is credited to King Shamba Bolongongo, who was also an initiator of a number of important social and political reforms among the Kuba.

The development of new patterns is a prominent feature of Kuba kingship. Every king was expected to invent a new cloth pattern at the beginning of his reign. This pattern was then carved into the royal drum marking his accession to the throne. The Belgian anthropologist and Kuba expert, Jan Vansina, tells a story—possibly apocryphal—of a group of missionaries working in the Kuba region in the 1920s, who were given a motorcycle and were riding it around the courtyard of the reigning Kuba king. The king was not impressed with this bit of western technology, but he was fascinated by the tracks the motorcycle wheels left in the sand of the courtyard. He then ordered that a copy be made of the tire imprints, and a pattern based on the prints was incorporated into the design repertoire. This pattern can now be seen on the king’s statue.

While Kuba cut-pile cloth is still the most popular native African textile, in recent years the long woman’s wrap skirt called Ntchak has also come into prominence, primarily because of its affinity to contemporary art. These remarkable Ntchak skirts or loincloths are perhaps a yard wide and several yards long at minimum; however, they can be woven to as much as 30 feet or more in length. They are made without a center or borders, and occasionally may have an undulating embroidered or cut-pile hem.

Ntchak appear, at first, to be simple patched skirts with random sequences of plain and patterned areas. Closer examination, however, reveals how carefully they are constructed and how skillfully the odd-shaped patches have been applied. As with other Kuba cloth, no gratuitous element has been allowed to creep into the design. The Ntchak for day-to-day use is a long white or red sash worn wrapped around the lower body and held at the waist, or just beneath the breasts, by a folded cloth band or a belt made of twisted multi-strand raffia fiber. This type of Ntchak usually consists of two or three rectangular panels of raffia, each 20 to 36 inches wide and 24 to 40 inches long. By contrast, the Ntchak worn by women in ceremonial dances are considerably longer, consisting of six to twelve rectangular panels ranging from 28 to 40 inches in width and from 14 to 35 feet in length.

Like other Kuba cloth, Ntchak also have a long history with the earliest known examples dating back to the 18th century. Emil Torday, a Kuba ethnographer, credits the Ngeende, a Kuba sub-group, with the invention of the Ntchak. Some Ngeende Ntchak use a base fabric with designs woven into it and small patches cut from similar textiles or from solid-color cloths which are then embroidered in. Others employ colored patches cut from European cloth. These are frequently said to be the oldest known Ntchak, having once belonged to the royal Bushoong family. It has been speculated that these early examples were simply old skirts that had been patched, but this has not been proven. The quality of the workmanship and the skill with which the cloth patches have been shaped and placed is usually a good indication of the age of the piece.

The Bushoong themselves make Ntchak using an embroidery technique borrowed from the Ngeende that uses large chevrons and groups of small patches. Two current types of Bushoong Ntchak are red with white designs, and white with black designs.

Modern Ntchak are sewn together lengthwise and assembled in such a way as to show off the unity of the panels or their lateral movement along their length. The designs are primarily rectilinear, except for dots and some half-rectilinear and half-curved forms. Occasionally, one may find horizontal, vertical, and diagonal designs on the same skirt, and sometimes old and new panels are stitched together.

The designs used on the Ntchak range from the plain to the most complex. Some have only a few embroidered patches which generally hide rips and tears. Others may use overstitching on the base fabric to form a geometric pattern. Another important design uses strips of cloth, often curvilinear, to produce a pattern which is remarkably similar to modern-day abstract painting.

Because Ntchak designs are so in tune with the work of contemporary art, they have long fascinated artists and writers like Braque, Matisse, and Tristan Tzara, who collected them as avidly as the Portuguese had collected Kuba cloths more than 300 years earlier. Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, Director of the Dapper African Museum in Paris and author of a study on African textiles, compares the artistry of Ntchak with the works of Klee, Matisse, and Eduardo Chillida. She suggests that in certain watercolors by Paul Klee, for example, the background is made up of a series of multicolored rectangles aligned in horizontal bands, against which there appears, outlined in black, a person, a floral motif, curving lines, or a square. A similar type of structural design was also employed in Ntchak, where the base fabric is made up of seven or eight rectangular panels, often almost square in form, and themselves composed of rectangles sewn end to end. Like Klee, different motifs are then embroidered onto the colored Ntchak fabric.

Eduardo Chillida was more directly influenced by the Ntchak as shown by an illustration provided by Falgayrettes-Leveau where Chillida’s painting looks identical to a close-up of a typical Ntchak design. This similarity also demonstrates the complexity and detail possible in one tiny portion of a Ntchak skirt.

To the untrained eye, Ntchak designs may not seem as well organized as the designs in other mediums. The Belgian artist Georges Meurant, who studied Kuba textiles, argues that the vocabulary of the Ntchak—that is, the shape of the embroidered patches and where they are placed on the base fabric—can be interpreted in terms of multiple variations. Embroideries may occasionally appear to be representational, but this is not in the spirit of the design.

Meurant asserts that the makers of Ntchak work intuitively, on a very large scale, to make designs which are executed very quickly and without any preliminary markings on the base cloth. Unusual effects in the cloth are also created by resist dyeing, where small reeds and other materials are sewn into the fabric so that these portions remain uncolored after dyeing. One particular sub-group, the Ngongo, have originated an unusual type of Ntchak involving the superimposition of two, or even three, fabrics with broad openwork in the form of typical Kuba motifs. One of the fabrics is dyed so that its openwork portions show up in contrast to the other fabrics, and thus creates inversions in every panel of the skirt.

Meurant suggests that the patches of Ntchak are applied as if to form a textile “composition”: Simply embroidered or appliquéd, the figures [motifs] are arranged in no apparent order or without any order, but related to each other along diagonals, or else the base is covered by a series of juxtaposed parallels and partly interlocking parallel lines along both axes ...

The art of the Ntchak is not immune to artistic change. In a 1988 essay published for an exhibition of Ntchak at the Dapper Museum in Paris, John Mack, curator of African Art at the British Museum, traced the history of Ntchak and its influence on modern art. He begins by noting that the word “Ntchak” merely means a woman’s skirt, with different terms used to designate the motifs and the decorations, the color, and the position of women allowed to wear such skirts.

Mack notes that early examples of Ntchak, now in museum collections, are characterized by their simplicity and limited design. Traditionally, the Ntchak for every-day use tends to have the design concentrated on the portion of the skirt which can be seen by others. Recently collected Ntchak, however, are distinguished by a multitude of design elements distributed over the entire surface of the skirt. The entire skirt is decorated in accordance with an over-all design pattern; its hidden portions no less imposing than the portion of the skirt that can be seen. Moreover, one can now find figurative elements and motifs not typical of conventional Kuba textile design on some skirts. Thus, there has been an enormous shift in the design philosophy between early Ntchak samples and more recent skirts. In recent years, modern art galleries in the Unite States and around the world have begun to cut the large Ntchak into room-size pieces and frame them. This is clearly the result of galleries making a handsome profit selling similar color-field textiles from Indonesia which are reminiscent of Mark Rothko paintings.

Unfortunately, the traditional methods used by African craftsmen and craftswomen to weave and decorate textiles for daily use, as well as for religious purposes, are rapidly disappearing, particularly in urban areas. Many of the so-called “traditional” textiles of Africa are now being made with the aid of protractors, stencils, and graphs, and are produced in modern factories in enormous quantities.

While it is still possible to find Kuba cloths or Ntchak at peddler stands for low prices, finding an authentic old textile is rare. A finely-made traditional Kuba cloth today can sell for well over a thousand dollars, while the prices of Ntchak have soared into the thousands.

With modern art galleries cutting up and framing old Ntchak and Kuba cloths, we are likely to find beautiful examples displayed on the walls of our finest art museums in the not-too-distant future.

Until then, artists and collectors will continue to have an opportunity to own some of the most beautiful, as well as most unusual, textile forms ever devised by man.

Irwin Hersey New York City September 2008

1 One of the Kuba sub-groups, the Ndengese, also uses purple in these cloths.