Acquired over the span of 20 years (1985 to 2005), the Kuba textiles of the Hamill Gallery showcase a period when Kuba skirts were created with one
eye on tradition and one eye on modernity.  From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Kuba people emerged from their previous seclusion and aspired to
redefine appliqué and embroidery styles to appeal to the Western aesthetic.  Although some aspects of skirt production remained unaltered, such as
the use of a single heddle loom and assigning women the task of decorating each skirt, the increased contact with Westerners encouraged individuality
and dynamic compositions that employed new colors and bold patterning.

  Kuba skirts, more generally known as Kuba cloth, are identified as the long raffia textiles embellished with embroidery and appliqué made in the
Congo (Democratic Republic) of Central Africa.  In fact, the Kuba people were once referred as the
Bambala meaning “people of the cloth”.(1)  Today
the word Kuba denotes a large tribe that consists of several sub-tribes including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Ngongo, and Shoowa.  While there are at
least eighteen sub-tribes in this confederation, only these four tribes have gained broad recognition of their artistic endeavors in the West.  Secluded
for centuries in the rainforests of the Congo Basin, the Kuba people had little contact with European colonialists.  Their surrounding landscape
provided an almost endless cycle of rain and plant growth where the raffia palm-tree grew profusely.  With restricted access to imported cotton, the
Kuba ingeniously wove their garments from fiberous palm leaves, a tradition that stretches back to the 17th century.  The process of harvesting the
palm leaves and subsequently shredding, weaving, trimming, dying, and decorating were communal activities that men and women equally shared.  As
it is virtually impossible to find a Kuba skirt that is more than 200 years old due to the climatic conditions of the rainforest which quickly breakdown raffia
fibers, the few available in art collections are not “old” by Western art-historical standards. Even so, the hundreds of skirts from the 1960-80s provide a
marvelous insight into innovative expressions that the Congolese people enjoyed with limited interference from the West.

The Six Tiers of Bushoong Skirts

  The texture of the raffia is what lends itself to a skirt-shape. Extremely stiff and rough, designing a garment that is form-fitting such as a tunic or pair
of pants is less feasible than creating a loose skirt that can be wrapped around the body and secured with belts.  Thus, both Kuba men and women
wore elaborate skirts that visually communicated information regarding their personal social status.  Among the Kuba tribes, the Bushoong (the
aristocratic sub-tribe) established a complex ranking-system for their raffia-woven creations so that a skirt’s particular style, color, and adornment
indicated who among the Bushoong people were of affluence and prestige. Bushoong skirts woven for men were called
mapels, the women’s nshaks.  
The organization of this ranking system can be visualized as a pyramid at the apex of which is found the
labot latwool, a mapel exclusively worn by the
Bushoong King.  

   The
labot latwool is dyed a vibrant shade of red and decorated with thick raffia embroidery.  The surface is adorned with thousands of cowry shells
that from a distance, color the King’s garment as a predominately white ensemble. The color white is significant because it symbolizes
Woot, the Kuba
people’s mythological ancestor that came from the sea.(
2)   No other Kuba textile resembles the labot latwool which therefore distinguishes the King as
the living manifestation of
Woot.  With the color white, the Kuba king is symbolized not only as a divine entity but one of exclusive royalty, power, and
veneration. Other people that are privileged to wear versions of
labot latwool (nshakandyeeng) are the King’s immediate female relatives such as his
mother, grandmother, aunt, etc.  The king’s personal
labot latwool, however, is considerably more striking with its numerous cowry shells.

  The second tier below the
labot latwool is a small decorative skirt called nshakabwiin worn by women of the royal Bushoong court.  A contrast to the
labot latwool, the nshakabwiin does not have cowry shells and is simply constructed with a cut-pile center oftentimes dyed beige or red and framed with
flat, geometric embroidery.  Of equal ranking with the
nshakabwiin is a men’s skirt, the ikuukmish-yeeng, which is crafted with zigzag stitches running
across small rectangular cut-outs in the raffia.  This skirt is further embellished with tiny embroidered circles. The Hamill Collection has a number of
ikuukmish-yeeng and a few nshakabwiin in its possession.  It should be noted that while the ikuukmish-yeeng is a prestigious textile, the animal skins,
beads, feathers and headdresses worn in conjunction with the skirt is a more accurate representation of a man’s prestige.  This is not the case with the
nshaks where the woven skirt is the sole indicator of high-status.(3)

  The third tier of
nshaks is one of my favorite Kuba textiles known as the nshakakot. Like its superior nshakabwiin, the nshakakot is designed with a
cut-pile addition.  Admiration for cut-pile over flat-embroidery is worth noting.  The hours spent stuffing raffia-tufts into the weft and then trimming and
fluffing those tufts to achieve a velvety texture elevates this textile to a higher rank.  The
nshakakot is perhaps the most sculptural of all Kuba cloth.  
The center is appliquéd then bordered with cut-pile dyed black.  The textile is transformed into a sculpture when the skirt is hemmed with a rope (made
of raffia) that has adopted a twisted shape from being tied to a curled rattan stick.(
4)  Versions of the nshakakot are seen without cut-pile borders and
as expected, are of lower status.  The
nshakakot is worn during the Itul festival, a lavish dance celebration that reenacts the creation of the universe by
the god,
Mboom.

 The forth tier and third to the last of the “pyramid” is an exciting textile that includes barkcloth known as
nshakishyeen.  Barkcloth is not a medium that
is exclusive to the Kuba people by any means.  Their pygmy neighbors, the Mbuti, are renowned for their painted barkcloth textiles made for festivals
and rites of passage.  The Kuba do not paint their barkcloth but rather dye the pulp black or leave it in its natural state.  The barkcloth is cut into
triangular and occasionally square pieces that are assembled like patchwork.  The Hamill collection owns Kuba barkcloth skirts that are combined with
raffia borders as well as others that are purely constructed of barkcloth. The
nshakishyeen is traditionally draped over bodies at funerals or worn by
prestigious women as a decorative overskirt.

 The fifth tier of the Kuba textiles is not an effortless creation despite its lower ranking.  In fact, the
nshakishwepi can take as long as two years to
reach completion.  The reason for this is its enormous size and prolific detailing.  Essentially, the
nshakishwepi is the collection of raffia panels
(approximately 40” x 40”) that are either left un-dyed or if dyed, appear red.  The brilliance of these nshaks lies in the embroidery that covers every
inch of the textile.  When a
nshakishwepi is commissioned- two or more women serve as the embroiders with the task of illuminating individual raffia
panels.  The surface is painstakingly transformed into a mesmerizing arrangement of lines, squares, circles, knots and diamond shapes.  Some
examples of
nshakishwepi can measure over 30 feet long!  One would imagine that such handiwork would earn a conspicuous display, but surprisingly
they are worn as underskirts by prestigious Kuba women with all other
nshak variations displayed on top.

 A fascinating phenomenon, the bottom tier of Kuba skirts- plainly titled
nshak, has blossomed into the “signature style” of Kuba textiles made popular
by Westerners- that is raffia skirts with appliqué designed for everyday usage.  The appliqué that adorns Bushoong, Ngeende, and Ngongo nshaks
originally was not an intentional design feature but a utilitarian feature.  To soften the stiff raffia skirts following weaving, the Kuba women would soften
the textiles by rubbing/pounding the skirts with stones, shells, or wooden pestles which tore small holes in the weave.  Pieces of extra raffia weave were
cut and discreetly applied over the holes. As contact with Europeans increased, the creators of
nshaks were encouraged to experiment with appliqué
and broaden their inherent talent for geometric patterning.  Likewise, tie-dye was also encouraged and has evolved to a level of sophistication
comparable to the tie-dye produced in Nigeria and Mali.  What’s significant is the realization that these textiles communicate a tremendous amount of
information regarding tribe, gender, class, relation to the king, and relation to Woot. They demonstrate the mastery of raffia, barkcloth, tie-dye, and the
art of adornment with embroidery, cut-pile, and appliqué.  The sheer abundance of woven raffia, especially when layered with multiple
nshaks,
functions as a visual marker of prosperity.  Kuba textiles are amplified when worn with belts, necklaces, bracelets, and headdress.

Ngongo or Ngeende?

 Shifting our focus from the Bushoong, it can be difficult to identify a Ngongo skirt from a Ngeende skirt. Since neither tribe ruled the Kuba
confederation, a strict classification of textiles was never instituted.  Perhaps this permitted space for experimentation as both the Ngongo and Ngeende
utilized all techniques: patchwork, tie-dye, cut-pile, embroidery, appliqué, and reverse appliqué, with abstracted motifs in numerous colors and sizes.  A
distinguishing factor for a man’s skirt was the addition of a checkerboard pattern running along the sides. The checkerboard is always black or dark
blue contrasted with white (plain ground) patchwork.  A second unique feature of some men’s skirts is the appearance of bobbles that look like fringe.
(
5)  These bobbles are made of raffia that is balled and textured by means of cut-pile.  Not all skirts fall into these gendered categories and I hesitate to
adhere to these two characteristics regarding men’s skirts when examining Kuba cloth.  Some Kuba skirts are so abstracted that they surpass
designation of a particular sex.

   Whether of Bushoong, Ngongo or Ngeende origin, all Kuba skirts are made from multiple panels of raffia weave.  For example, a
nshak can be
constructed of 4 panels approximately 25”x25” which are sewn together and then hemmed.  The length of a raffia skirt becomes limitless as more and
more panels are connected.  Width is increased by adding rectangular panels to the sides of a 25”x 25” panel. Once connected, these raffia panels are
transformed to the equivalent of a prepped and stretched canvas ready for ornamentation.  The reason behind the multiple panels is linked to the Kuba
people’s loom and peculiar style of weaving.  Individual fiber strands are arranged on warp-weft grid with each weft strand being fed by hand.  A single
strand of fiber is never tied to the next strand and therefore a continuous “thread” is not formed.  What holds the panel together is entirely dependent
on tightness of the weave.  The excess of the fiber strands are cut off and all sides of the panel are finally hemmed. The average length of a natural
raffia-strand is 32 inches which ultimately dictates the maximum length and height of each final panel.  Another interesting characteristic is the
orientation of the loom which is placed on the ground (supported by wooden posts) and inclined at a 45 degree angle toward the weaver who begins by
sitting at the base of the loom and as he progresses, works above his head.

    Once a series of panels are complete they are sewn together to form a skirt.  Examining the skirts from the Hamill collection, you will find a number of
Kuba cloths that are uniform in appearance and others that have been pieced together from multiple panels of varying sizes and colors.  It is likely that
the more random assemblages were individually embellished by multiple artists.  Skirts that display a consistent pattern also involved several women
but have successfully coordinated the overall design of the skirt through a leader who commissions certain colors and patterning and then assembles
the panels herself.(
6)  Embroidery, as opposed to appliqué, is added when panels have already been assembled and thus results in a more
synchronized pattern.

What does it mean?

   The interpretation of the geometric patterning that appears on all versions of mapels and nshaks is an open debate.  An early European
interpretation related to all forms of African art held that Africans lacked a natural sense of symmetry.  Today this argument has taken a lighter stance
(a less Eurocentric opinion) to suggest that the African craftsman designs with intended abstraction and asymmetry.  In other words, a sense of
purpose is applied to the irregular patterning.  Western scholars have defined the patterns on skirts as representations of various dimensions of Kuba
culture including Kuba cosmology, mythological characters (involving Woot and Mboom), or a subliminal language illustrating a story.  The influence of
Kuba skirts on Western modern art is a frequent component of art history papers which mention Kuba textiles in relation to the work of Braque, Matisse,
Tzara, Klee, Chillida and occasionally Picasso.(
7)   Whether all of these famous painters and sculptors owned Kuba cloth is not clear.  While the
patterning on Kuba cloth may resemble some expressions of fauvism, cubism, suprematism, and other non-objective art movements, it can be difficult
to accurately assess the connection of African Art to Western Art.  The exchange of artistic influence goes both ways and to pinpoint where or when
Western influence has been interjected into a tribe’s art history can be obscure.  

   Nevertheless, it is exciting to read contemporary research that contemplates potential meanings behind these powerful motifs.  Even naming of some
geometric forms has been documented such as a
nshakakot’s Bula’s design, Kanya’s Fingers, and Shaved Head Patterns.(8)  Bula and Kanya are
names of women who invented popular appliqué designs.  Kuba cosmology also assigns alphabetical motifs a place in a nature-culture dynamic.  For
example, the letters L, V, and Y belong to realm of nature while X belongs to the realm of culture, an earth versus man relationship.(
9)   The nature-
culture interaction is illustrated in the juxtaposition of L, V, Y, and X patterns which may symbolize the birth of Woot who was created through the union
of the sky-god and earth-mother.  In addition, the Kuba pattern of a self-contained knot (seen in cut-pile) is connected to gender and asks the
question- what is the sex of your child?  Personality type is also loosely connected to this knot-pattern.(
10)   It is an example of shared cultural
knowledge that is articulated through a motif that appears in both mat-weaving and skirt ornamentation.

   Regardless of their proposed intentions, the skirts themselves are enough to appreciate without the conversation of symbolism and connection to
Western Art.  Kuba skirts speak a highly evocative and transcendental language.  The enduring quality of these creations is miraculous as they are
repeatedly dismantled, repaired, rejoined, and disseminated among families, dynasties, neighboring African countries and international tradesmen.  
They are buried with the dead and celebrated among the living; no other textile in Central Africa reaps such veneration.  Raffia skirts are ever-present
in Kuba life and unify the tribal confederation.  Yet they simultaneously permit authenticity and inventiveness among its people.  Artists, whether they
are known or unknown to the West, flaunt their independence and talent for design as they commission and fashion these skirts.  Many Kuba cloths
have signatures on the back of them but their names go unrecognized outside the Congo and the total surrender to “art for art’s sake” is demonstrated
without an ego. Indeed, even the environment from which this art form emerges mirrors an unceasing cycle of birth and decay as hundreds of skirts
have disintegrated and vanished into the ground- the same place where new raffia-palms will always sprout.  The transcendental element is the Kuba
skirt’s ability to span time and appeal to multiple cultures.  It is the visual embodiment the Kuba people’s past, present, and afterlife- embedded in
simplicity of it all.  They fortuitously, again and again, communicate the nuances of complex people without words.

   The lengths and ornamentation of each skirt are at times subtle and restrained; at other times they are flamboyant and vivid.  Much like the people
who wear them, the skirts develop personalities of their own.  The diversity of techniques and materials utilizing appliqué, cut-pile, embroidery, tie-dye,
natural dyes, and synthetic dyes, allows for endless combinations and opportunities to redefine what qualifies as a “Kuba Cloth”.  Even today, Kuba
skirts continue to be produced and their motifs are undergoing a new phase as the Congo and the West advance their communication. The latest
trends include appliqué motifs that are more figurative and/or floral, reflecting yet another incarnation of Kuba textile design.

(c) All text on this page is copyright by Piper O'Sullivan


Glossary:

Kuba: a large, tribal confederation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire)
Nshak: a woman’s skirt
Mapel: a man’s skirt
Bushoong: the ruling Kuba sub-tribe. The king of the Kuba people is always Bushoong
Ngeende: a Kuba sub-tribe
Ngongo: a Kuba sub-tribe
Ranking of Bushoong Textiles (high to low): Labot Latwool, Nshakabwiin, Ikuukmish-yeeng, Nshakakot, Nshakishyeen, Nshakishwepi, and Nshak (11)
Warp: the vertical orientation of a weave
Weft: the horizontal orientation of a weave
Heddle: a horizontal bar that tightens the weft and warp

Notes and Citations:

Transliteration of Kuba terminology
: The words Nshak, Ngeende, Ngongo, and Woot have many spelling variations.  I chose the spelling of Nshak
because it is a convenient pronunciation for English speakers.  Please note that
Nshak can appear as Ncak, Ntshak, Tnchak, and Tchak.  The word
Ngeende (Ngeendese) can appear as Nageende and likewise Ngongo can be spelled as Nagongo.  Woot is also occasionally spelled as Whoot and
Woto.

Kuba vs. Bushoong: The words “Kuba” or “Kuba Kingdom” are umbrella terms that embody many sub-tribes of the Congo- at least 18 including the
Bushoong, Ngeende, Ngongo, Showa, Kel, Pyanng, Bulaand, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Bokila, Maluk, etc.(
12)  The
paragraphs describing in the “pyramid analogy” of textile classification applies to the Bushoong sub-tribe only.

_________________________________

(
1)Takeda, Sharon. Senior Curator of Costumes and Textiles. “Collections of African Kuba Textiles”. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 2009 web-
source: http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=502118;type=802

(
2)Schaeldler, Karl-Ferdinand. Weaving in Africa, South of the Sahara. Penterra-Verlag, 1987.pp.387-388 with additional references to Jan Vasina
(1964), E. Torday/T.A. Joyce (1910), and Harry Tegnaeus (1950).

(
3)Ibid.

(
4)Adams, Monni. “Kuba Embroidered Cloth”. African Arts, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Nov. 1978) UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center. p. 30

(
5)The checkerboard pattern and raffia bobbles as distinguishing factors for men’s skirts appear in: Duncan Clark’s The Art of African Textiles. San
Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1997. p.51 and John Gillow’s African Textiles. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003. p. 193

(
6)Svenson, Ann E. “Kuba Textiles: An Introduction”. WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan. 1986), pp. 2-5
2009 web-source: http://cool.conservation-us.org/waac/wn/wn08/wn08-1/wn08-102.html

(
7)For more details regarding Western artists and their relationship to Kuba Cloth please read:
Hersey, Irwin. “Textile Art of the Kuba People”. QCC Art Gallery (Queensborough Art Gallery, CUNY). Copyright: September 2008. 2009 web-source:
http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/ArtGallery/Programs/Exhibits/kuba/essay.asp

(
8)The Textile Museum, Washington, DC. “Textile of the Month, Skirt, Zaire: Kuba People 20th Century”. Copyright: 2006.  2009 web-source: http://www.
textilemuseum.org/totm/ntshakindex.htm

(
9)Schmidt, Peter.“Kuba Cosmology and Crafts and the World Wide Web” adapted from Georges Meurant, Shoowa Design: African Textiles from the
Kingdom of Kuba
. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
2009 web-source: http://www.swarthmore.edu/Humanities/pschmid1/kuba.html

(
10)Ibid.

(
11)The ranking system and classification for Bushoong textiles is a personal interpretation of the research presented in the book: Weaving in Africa,
South of the Sahara by Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler. Penterra-Verlag, 1987. The pyramid analogy is not component of this book, however all of the terms
Labot Latwool, Ntshakabwiin, Ikuukmish-yeeng, Ntshakakot, Ntshakishyeen, Ntshakishwepi, and Ntshak are taken from this source: pp. 366-395.

(
12)University of Iowa. Art  and Life in Africa: People Resources. “Kuba Information”. 2009 web-source: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people.html
The Hamill Collection of Kuba Skirts
by Piper O'Sullivan