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