Ethnography by the Bay, Textiles (Part I)

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Asafo Flag, Fante tribe, Ghana, early 1900s (courtesy Owen Hargreaves and Jasmine Dahl; photo ©Liz Hager)

At noon on Friday, the opening day of the The 23rd San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts show (2/13-15), the light foot traffic inside the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason appeared equally-divided between the serious collectors and the dabblers interested in furthering their ethnological education.  Along with scores of the perennially-popular Persian & Turkish rugs, Uzbeki ikat munisaks, antique suzanis, African masks, Oceanic shields, African masks and the scattered Kaitag embroideries were a number of unusual and stunning pieces.  

Asafo Flags, Ghana

Asafo refers to the centuries-old “people’s militia” of the predominently Fante tribe in Ghana. Today asafo is not so much a standing army, but an established social and political organization based on martial principles. The tribe makes extensive use of pictorial symbols, which essentially form a system of writing. Similar to proverbs, this syntax preserves and passes along the tribe’s culture. The symbols appear on textiles, pottery, metal castings, wood carvings and architectural elements.  

According to Rebecca Maksel in “Dueling Banners” (Smithsonian Magazine, link below) the cultures of Ghana “boast a repertoire of more than 3,000 proverbs, although only about 200 of these are depicted on flags.” Each company had its own flag—emblazoned with a unique color scheme and symbols—usually commissioned by each captain for the day of his investiture. Flags were displayed during special occasions, festivals and funerals. The above flag from the early 1900s is typical of the form the flags take—a cotton cloth has been appliquéd and painted, in this case with symbols of a tribesman, stars, a flag-like design at the top, and the Union Jack. Is this an historical theme having to do with some specific event under British rule (Ghana did not gain independence until 1957)? Or does it represent the derivation of the company’s source of power (the stars)? 

Pah-soe, Burma

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Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (lower body wrapper) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

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Court Garment/Men’s Pah-soe (detail showing typical plaid “fringe”) silk tapestry weave, Burma, mid-late 19th century (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

The pah-soe is a voluminous wrapped skirt worn by fashionably dressed Burmese gentlemen on festive occasions. This piece is made in the typical way of silk woven in tapestry weave, or  acheik-luntaya (in which the weft does not run selvage to selvage, but is placed in small sections).   The garment was woven in two narrow strips and sewn together.  It is finished off with plaid “fringe,” which seems to be the style for these garments.  This is one of the most gorgeous silk weavings on view at the show—its luscious purply indigo color not well captured in the dim lighting of the booths. 

Ritual Cloth, Nigeria

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Ukara, Leopard Society, Igbo Tribe, Nigeria, plain weave/stitch/resist on cotton dyed with indigo, 20th century (courtesy Cathryn Cootner, photo ©Liz Hager).

Like the Asafo flags, this Igbo pictorial cloth is a sophisticated form of communication. The Igbo Leopard Society was a secret society, perhaps established in Nigeria as early as the 1600s, but which flourished mainly in the early- to mid-20th century mostly as a form of shamanism. The shaman transformed himself into an animal (ngbe or leopard) and conversed with the other animals on behalf of the society.  The central society ritual consisted of masquerade processions and dances, in which members wrapped themselves in leopard skins and ukura skirts.  

According to Amanda Carlson in African Folklore: An Encyclopedia (p.299)—

Leopard Society members, who pursue excellence and expertise in the artistic and intellectual facets of nsibidi {symbol language of, among others, the Ejagham and Igbo tribes}, create brilliant displays with their secret knowledge, which once gave them the power to enforce the laws of the society at large. On ritual occasions, members create a dramatic presence by wearing a ukara cloth, which they tie around the waist to form a long skirt…  

Ukara cloth has an array of signs that uniformly cover the surface of the cloth and refer to titled positions within the society, secret rituals, and philosophical concepts. Read as a whole the cloth is a synopsis of the Leopard Society and a symbol of membership. 

This ukara, a bold design of indigo and white, is particularly dense, which causes the eye to linger in order to register its individual components. Despite a multitude of figurative and geometric symbols, the rigid grid assists the eye in both reading the whole design and seeing the individual parts. The design seems to undulate and flow; the indigo and white cause the symbols to pop forward or recede into the background. 

Kantha (Quilts), West Bengal

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Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave, West Bengal, ca. 1940. (courtesy John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

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Tiger motif—Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

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Yankee Sailor motif? —Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. 1940. (collection of John Gillow; photo ©Liz Hager)

Kantha are quilted cloths made from old saris, dhotis, and lungis. Used as bed covers or wraps, kantha can from three to seven saris thick, quilted together with the simple running stitch. This stitching gives the kantha a finished effect similar to an American-style quilt, although sari silk imparts a luster and richness not present in the latter bedcover.  The kanthas pictured here are made predominantly of cotton, but that in no way detracts from their value as exquisite and breathtaking textiles.

A long talk with renowned textile authority and dealer John Gillow revealed the engaging story behind the kantha above.  Like many kantha this was produced as a dowery piece, most likely for the daughter of a wealthy (rice) farmer. She may have worked on it, but likely other women of the plantation did the majority of the work. Like many kanthas, this features the central lotus motif. The fancifully-conceived animals that surround the lotus would have been been familiar to the Bengalis—a tiger, a crocodile, peacocks, fish, as well as farm animals. West Bengal is a cultural cross-roads of sorts, hence the Buddhist lotus flower mixed in with an Islamic water carrier (lower left),  women in Hindu-style lengha(?) skirts (lower right), and what Gillow hypothesizes is a “Yank” sailor above the women.   (This being executed in the mid 40s during or after the war.)  The challace (above left) is traditionally filled with rose water, which along with betelnut, is a welcoming gift in Bengali homes. 

Kanthas were also executed in the most stunning of geometric designs. The upper photograph of the two below demonstrates the subtlety of a well-executed reversible design.  As the lower photographic detail shows, great care was taken to continue the stitching design into the background. The hours of work that must have gone into the creation of these extraordinary quilts is mind-numbing. 

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Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

 

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Kantha, Cotton thread embroidery on cotton plain weave (detail), West Bengal, ca. mid-19th century. (courtesy Thomas Mond; photo ©Liz Hager)

 

Wider Connections

Tribal Arts homepage

Asafo Flags (images)

Smithsonian on Asafo flags

Inscribing Meaning—Nsibidi 

John Gillow’s books on textiles

Cloth as Metaphor Exhibition

Kantha stitches

 


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2 Responses to “Ethnography by the Bay, Textiles (Part I)”

  1. The leopard societies of the Cross River still exist and Ukara is still made and worn.

  2. indira mital Says:

    Conservationists today could well make Kantha their clarion call. Its philosophy is deeply rooted in the axiom: Waste not, want not. Buddhist ‘bhikshus’, in accordance with their spartan lifestyle, were required to subsist on alms alone in their mission to preach, teach and tend to the needs of the rural laiety. Besides victuals, they also received old fabric or clothing which they learned to fashion into protection against the elements. Following the practice of the rural women who did not let a single morsel or a single thread go waste, the ‘bhikshus’ also tacked together layers of frayed fabric with the most basic stitch, the running stitch, to strengthen a wrap or cloak for wear.
    In Kolkata, India, the Self Help Enterprise (S.H.E.) run by Shamlu Dudeja is among the few fired by a zeal for Kantha revival. Dudeja is a visionary and determined to take Kantha far ahead than ever envisioned.
    More information about the mission of S.H.E. is available online.
    www. sheindia.org
    http://www.shecal.org
    e-Mali: shekantha@gmail.com
    Address:
    S.H.E.
    4/1 Alipore Park Road
    Kolkata 700027
    India
    Ph: 011-91-33-24799002

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