Venetian Red Notebook: Kuba Cloth, the Geometry of the Labyrinth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth, a raffia cut-pile embroidered textile, has been made by the Shoowa, a small tribe in the kingdom of Kuba, in the Kasai, (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) for hundreds of years. These textiles, embellished with stylized abstracted designs from nature, combine line and surface in an invigorating way that creates movement and depth. Traditionally, Kuba cloth had many uses—as currency, for dowries, clothing, religious rituals and shrouds. The textiles were highly prized and conferred status.

The embroidery is done on a tightly woven plain weave cloth with very fine, softened raffia. The cloth is woven by the men, the embroidery is done by the women. Dyed in earth tones of red, yellow and orange with vegetable dyes, the raffia is pushed down and up through the cloth with a steel needle, then cut in even tufts. There are no knots, and it is packed so densely that the individual tufts are not visible. The textiles combine several tones of color which contrast to form optical geometric motifs that are complex and eye-catching.

The Kuba people have strong design traditions that combine a complex number-based script with the repetition of geometric motifs that are also used in tattoos, body scarification, architecture and basketry. The interlocking diamonds, lines and squares create spatial variations that enliven the cloth with movement. The women work the cloth from left to right, top to bottom, without any preliminary drawings. The single initial element of the design defines the character of the whole piece.

These textiles are unique, yet the visual motifs are very evocative of patterns we see in Western art and craft—they call to mind traditional weaving patterns such as twill, chevron, bird’s-eye and diamond weaves and there are echoes of Byzantine textiles, Art Deco motifs, mazes and labyrinths, M.C.Escher, as well as roads, landscapes and cultivation as seen from an airplane. The visual inventiveness of these works, with their parallel lines, concentric circles, chevrons and diagonals, set off by the tonal shadings, make these textiles endlessly interesting to look at—you always see something new, different patterns and connections constantly emerge.

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba1 cloth

Kuba cloth

Kuba cloth

To study in detail about the complicated origins and history of Kuba cloth, Venetian Red recommends Georges Meurant’s Shoowa Design, African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba, Thames and Hudson, 1986. The 12 examples of Kuba cloth in this post were all taken from his beautiful book.

10 Responses to “Venetian Red Notebook: Kuba Cloth, the Geometry of the Labyrinth”

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kuba cloth- the samples you’re showing are fantastic! Does the deyoung have any samples?

  2. Victoria, sorry, I don’t know if the DeYoung has any Kuba cloths.
    Kuba cloths are still being produced, but it is widely acknowledged that the finest ones date from the 17th century, with some quality pieces being made up through the 19th century. I have two from the early 20th century, and they are lovely, but not nearly as complex as the ones from Meurant’s book. The motifs, some going as far back as the neolithic period, are based on a large vocabulary of symbols, identified as things from the natural world, such as: the spirits, the lion’s paw, the eagle’s breast—and these motifs are incorporated into a complex geometric system. Unfortunately, the tradition is largely lost—at some point the makers began to simply imitate ancient patterns long after the knowledge and traditions, of which they were once an intricate part, disappeared.

    • Ladies, de Young most definitely does have Kuba cloths, I was there yesterday looking at one and thinking of this post. Can’t seem to find pictures online. . .

  3. great post, i’d also recommend looking at, “textile art of the bakuba” by irwin hersey for more great examples.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks, I will. Meurant’s book has excellent, high-quality photographs of extraordinary and old pieces—but the text is dense and obscure. I haven’t seen the book you recommend and I’ll look forward to reading it.

  4. Peggy Flores Says:

    These patterns seem simple yet are so sophisticated and timeless. Would be very interesting to understand how they have influenced textile design over time. Perhaps Meurant’s book touches on this. Thank you for featuring.

  5. i’ would like to know more about kuba symbols, and the spirit storys behind it can you help me.
    I was born in Congo.
    I just discovered the beauty of kube design, I would like to know more about my culture

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