Kuba textiles are a type of raffia cloth unique to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, and noted for their elaboration and complexity of design and surface decoration. Most textiles are a variation on rectangular or square pieces of woven palm leaf fiber enhanced by geometric designs executed in linear embroidery and other stitches, which are cut to form pile surfaces resembling velvet. Traditionally, men weave the raffia cloth, and women are responsible for transforming it into various forms of textiles, including ceremonial skirts, ‘velvet’ tribute cloths, headdresses and basketry.
In Kuba culture, men are responsible for raffia palm cultivation and the weaving of raffia cloth. Several types of raffia cloth are produced for different purposes, the most common form of which is a plain woven cloth that is used as the foundation for decorated textile production. Men produce the cloth on inclined, single-heddle looms and then use it to make their clothing and to supply foundation cloth to female members of their clan section. Only men and boys participate in or even watch the weaving process.
The squares are approximately 26x28 inches. Each square takes about 2 to 3 hours to create, although some skilled weavers can create 10 to 15 squares a day. The cloth is coarse when it is first cut from the loom, so it is then pounded in a mortar, which softens it and renders it ready for the application of surface decoration, for which women are responsible. The cloth is dyed before embroidering.
The intricate designs are of cultural significance and the embroidery is admired in the art world. Thats why it is regarded as one of the most significant forms of African textile art. Kuba cloth can be found in private collections as well as museums all over the world. Women, typically pregnant women, are responsible for the embroidery. Using a variety of stitches on a raffia base creates the intricate geometric patterns that are characteristic of kuba cloth.
The Kuba are inspired by imagination and the environment. They believe in spells, witchcraft, the presence of the dead, and a variety of supernatural powers. Humanity and life lie at the intersection of the natural and the supernatural, according to the underlying Kuba myth. As a result, rectilinear lines in Kuba art depict natural patterns. Both in art and nature, these lines occasionally disrupt what we take to be geometric order.
The improvised patterns are mostly made using three methods:
Cut Pile: After anchoring a small fiber to the base cloth, the raffia is cut. The texture of cut-pile stitching resembles velvet and is dense and plush.
Stiches: A long fiber strand is used in these stitches. The stem stitch, with its looped spiral effect, is the most common of these stitches. The stitches create bold lines and outline areas filled with cut-pile embroidery.
Appliqué: Patterns are created by sewing a different color of raffia cloth to the base cloth.
Many prestige weavings are dyed with twool, a deep red substance obtained from the heartwood of the tropical trees Pterocarpus sp. and Baphia pubescens. The Kuba believe that twool is imbued with magical and protective properties. When mixed with palm oil, it creates a pomade that is applied to the face, hair and body in a ritual context. According to oral tradition, the Pende were responsible for teaching the Kuba how to weave textiles; the Pende used twool to die their prestige clothes for death rituals.
Early 20th Century ethnographer Emil Torday acquired the oldest group of extant textiles from the Kuba tradition from the reigning king, Kot aPe. He called these textiles "Bambala" after the ruling clan. According to Joseph Cornet, these cloths were embroidered by Bushong women who were pregnant with the King's heirs for use in rituals surrounding the birth of the children. They were also used as funerary regalia for noble women. The slight sculptural relief, elaborate geometric designs and technical cohesiveness of the textiles indicate that they were created by highly skilled elders. According to art historian Vanessa Drake Moraga, "That Kuba embroiderers represented textile structures in their compositions underscores both the value of weaving to the culture and the prestige attached to women art."
Kuba women traditionally wore overskirts during burial displays, but the overskirt was later adopted as part of many ceremonial ensembles worn during ritual dances, celebrations and masked performances. The wraparound skirt was secured with a belt and worn over a typically monochrome red or white embroidered skirt. These skirts exhibit a variety of design components; some skirts employ flat linear embroidery exclusively, while others employ this technique exclusive on the borders of the fabric, in which case the interior is executed with cut-pile embroidery, which lends the surface a "plush" appearance and feel. In the cut-pile embroidery technique, short raffia strands are individually inserted with a needle under one or more warps or wefts of a plain-woven raffia panel, then cut close to the surface at each end to produce the raised "pile." Textile weaving boasts a variety of motifs, such as guilloche interlace, which embroidery artists employed along with color, line and texture to yield varied compositions and visual effects. The embroidery design is chosen by the female head of the clan, and she assigns different blocks to women based on their skill level. Because the skirt is assembled from blocks embroidered from by multiple women, each assembled skirt is unique. Each block can take months or even years to complete and multiple blocks are combined to the desired length of the skirt, which is usually 25 feet long.
The skirts represent the Kuba value of community. Each skirt is the result of many creators. Men of the clan weave the cloth, and each of the raffia squares that make up the skirt are decorated by separate women, each of who creates an independent design. The clan takes communal responsibility for maintaining the supply of skirts and all adults in the clan are expected to contribute to the creation of cloth. There are multiple Bushoong proverbs that speak of collective ownership of the cloth and the responsibility of everyone participating in the process.
Kuba textiles demonstrate a taste for interrupting the expected line; they compose through juxtapositions of sharply differing units and abrupt shifts of form.
Mathematician Donald Crowe has analyzed, in particular, the two-dimensional designs of Benin, Yoruba and Kuba arts and has shown the extent of the Africans' explorations into the formal possibilities of geometric variation. In their art, the Kuba have developed all the geometric possibilities of repetitive variations of border patterns, and of the seventeen ways that a design can be repetitively varied on a surface, the Kuba have exploited twelve. This exploration does not mean that they confine themselves to repetitive patterning in confronting a surface to be decorated.
The character of Kuba design accords with Robert Thompson's observation that some African music and art forms are enlivened by off-beat phrasing of accents, by breaking the expected continuum of surface, by staggering and suspending the pattern. In textile design, the Africans of the Kasai-Sankuru region do not project a composition as an integrated repetition of elements. Until recently, Euro-American attitudes on this point were so fixed that they called a textile design a "repeat," and expected to find a unit of identical imagery repeated over the surface. This kind of integration is not typical for African two-dimensional arts.