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Threads of the Imagination

How Africa's kente cloth wraps around the world

By Tom Stabile | HUMANITIES, July/August 1998 | Volume 19, Number 4

Kente, the traditional fabric of Ghana’s Asante people has evolved into a symbol of many meanings -- political and cultural, African and American, honorary and everyday.

“Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity” opens this September in Newark, New Jersey.

"What is called kente is many things," says Doran H. Ross, director of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History and one of the project’s architects, though he notes its origin is Ghana's strip-woven cloth -- which got top billing earlier this year when U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary Rodham Clinton were presented with kente robes during their tour of Africa. But Ross says kente appears just as widely today in Western-style tailored clothing, and in other ways that make it the most recognizably African textile.

"Its symbolic role has gotten more and more sophisticated and complicated over the years," says Ross, noting that kente has appeared in such diverse places as the inauguration ceremony of a New Jersey governor and as the pattern on a set of collectible glasses at McDonald's.

The exhibition supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities was developed by the University of California-Los Angeles' Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the Newark Museum. The two-year exhibition will convey the kente experience with museum displays, lectures, weaving demonstrations, and interactive projects, including the participation of high school students in cultural research efforts and the publishing of books and curriculum materials. From Newark, the exhibition will visit the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and then proceed to Washington, Detroit, and Birmingham, Alabama.

Ross says there has never been an exhibition focusing exclusively on Africa's most recognized textile in all of its modern forms -- especially since it has come to mean "many different things to many different people." The exhibition must tread on several "contested issues," including what qualifies as kente, and how it should be used.

Ross says while some scholars find nontraditional uses of kente to be a flattering bow to African culture, others see it as opportunistic trampling upon a hallowed artistic form. The exhibition, Ross says, won't take sides, but instead will trace all meanings, forms, and expressions of kente today.

But how can one textile cover so much ground?

"How could a pair of sneakers in American society take on the meaning and expensiveness that a pair of Air Jordans has?" counters Harriett B. Schiffer, an independent lecturer on kente and other West African cloth-weaving customs, who also markets cloths through her firm L.F.S. for Wonoo Ventures.

"It's much more than just a beautiful piece of cloth," says Schiffer. "Textiles can reflect the accumulated knowledge of a society or the status of members of the society. Kente is a reflection simultaneously of the religious, political, and social values of Asante society."

Commissioned by the kings of the Asante peoples of south central Ghana in the late seventeenth century -- who wanted to create a rich official regalia -- the kente-weaving developed roots in the Asante village of Bonwire, which today remains its undisputed home. For centuries since, the Asante have worn kente as a garment of celebration, to commemorate the importance of an event or time of year, donning it as toga-style robes for men, or as skirts, tops, and headdresses for women.

"My father wore kente all the time on special occasions," says K. Anthony Appiah, a professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard University who grew up in Ghana. "Kente is the most ceremonial...You don't wear it around the house. It's a bit like having a tuxedo."

Even when not woven for clothing, the use of kente conveys distinction.

"You'll see kente on umbrellas, which are important regalia at state functions, and you'll see kente on drums," says Ross. "There's a variety of different contexts to make it known it's a special occasion."

Kente is special by design -- making even one narrow strip requires considerable effort. Never mind the complexity of constructing the wooden loom itself -- which a neighboring Asante village has adopted as its own specialty -- or the years of training and practice that weaving apprentices must log to properly operate the mechanism. Maya Angelou, in a delightful children's book, Kofi and His Magic, which she wrote in 1996, tells the true story of Kofi, an Asante boy destined to become a weaver, who began at preschool age and by age seven is well versed in the trade.

"It is true that the best people start very young," says Appiah, recalling his visits to the shops of master weavers in Bonwire. "They're trained from very young. You see them at the loom, using their hands and feet, the shuttle moving back and forth with fiber across the frame, the strips collecting in a basket beside them." The weavers are typically men in Asante culture, Schiffer notes, in part because of the difficulty for women to use looms if they are pregnant.

Using mainly silk, the weavers work on strips that are generally three to four inches wide and seven to ten feet long, with the shorter pieces meant for women's garments (eight to ten strips) and the longer ones for men (twenty to twenty-five strips). The completed strips are sewn together by hand -- or sometimes today by machine -- to create the robes or other garments and products using kente.

Schiffer says the length of time it takes to complete one strip varies by the complexity of the chosen pattern, which can distinguish itself by the number of horizontal versus vertical patterns. The simplest strip uses mostly vertical, or "warp" patterns with just a touch of horizontal, or "weft" patterns, and an experienced weaver can make several of those in one day. But Schiffer says a "single-pick" strip brings more complexity -- more weft and fewer warp patterns. A "double-pick," with nearly all weft patterns, and the warp pattern hardly visible, requires the most work of all, and can take up to four days to complete an individual strip.

On a technical level, Asante kente-weaving does not depart significantly from other West African weaving traditions, including cloths made by the E'we people (whose weavers tend to be women instead of men, and whose cloths are cut at lengths of fourteen feet). But Asante kente patterns have distinguished themselves in other ways -- their appearance, their cultural significance, and their quick spread in popularity around the world.

The enthusiastic use of color and intricate work of its patterns, says Schiffer, has made kente popular and recognizable symbol. But she notes that the colors each have their own meanings in Asante culture.

"The colors themselves do have significance," she says. "Green is fertility and new harvest, gold is royalty, black is aging and spirituality, white is purity."

The patterns, meanwhile, are far from haphazard -- they are carefully chosen symbols which a master weaver develops. To mark the significance of the choices, the weaver names the pattern, adding another level of import to the kente tradition, because the names often honor people, historical events, or cherished Asante proverbs.

One prominent pattern is Oyokoman, which uses the red, gold and green colors that the Asante kings chose for their garments. Another is Abusa Ye Dom, which celebrates "positive attributes of the extended family system," according to the writings of Howard University professor Kwaku Ofori Ansa, who has published his research on the meanings of patterns in both books and on the Internet. "In its many variations and background colors, Abusa Ye Dom symbolizes strong family bond, the value of family unity, collective work, and responsibility."

The meanings of patterns can also change with the times. Ofori Ansa writes that one pattern called Obaakofo Mmu Man, which means "one person does not rule a nation," had originally been designed to honor former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah's wife, but was changed when Nkrumah was overthrown by a military coup in the mid-1960s.

Ross says that hundreds of kente strip patterns have been documented over time, and Asante weavers come up with new ones often. He notes that although the early patterns caught the attention of visitors to the Asante region, the political transformation of West Africa of the 1960s it quickly put kente on the international scene.

"The first thing is it became Ghanaian," says Appiah, who notes that the British who once governed the country as a colony recognized the elegance of Asante kente by incorporating parts of it into western dress as kerchiefs or cummerbunds. Then came Nkrumah, the architect of modern Ghana, who put kente on display for the world by ordering his officials to wear it for important occasions and then by wearing it himself during well-publicized visits to America in 1958 and 1960.

"I do think the Ghanaian independence struggle, and Nkrumah's role as its most eloquent spokesman, helped spread kente's visibility," Appiah says.

Its prominent use by Africa's new political leaders helped kente become a symbol not only of the Pan-African liberation movement, but also of the American civil rights struggles occurring at the same time in the 1960's -- inevitably painting kente with strong political overtones not related to its Asante roots.

As kente's visibility increased, it wasn't long before other African textile producers began to imitate the designs. They first began to appear in broadloom form by weavers producing forty-foot sections of cloth, soon graduated to machine-loomed mills, and finally appeared in roller-printed versions, which have the look, but not the texture or artistry of strip-woven kente.

The explosion of kente production soon invited many more uses than even its creators had envisioned. Indeed, Ross says as African Americans tried during this era to define their relationship with Africa, it was not uncommon to see kente as a wall hanging or furniture decoration in their homes.

"There was a gradual building up in this imagery in African American magazines here," says Ross. "Famous people would go to Ghana and be given gifts of Kente," among the most prominent being Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Maya Angelou, and Thurgood Marshall.

As kente reached far beyond the borders of its creators, and its patterns became ever more accessible to the world, it began to merge with the commercial and cultural forces of modern times. Ross says kente appears prominently now in American churches, at graduation ceremonies, and in Kwaanza celebrations. But it just as easily adorns greeting cards, book covers, ties, bookbags, sneakers, beachballs, baseball caps, and even Barbie dolls.

Ross says the universality of kente as a pattern is exactly what troubles scholars who believe that the cloth's significance suffers with its wider use.

"There's a significant group that thinks kente should be reserved for African Americans," he says.

But its reach into the everyday also signals the textile's increasing importance, says Ross. He cites community interviews conducted by Los Angeles students for a study of contemporary attitudes about kente, especially in its role as a link to a regal Africa of the past. "All kinds of words cropped up during the interviews that the Crenshaw High School students did," says Ross. "Heritage is one, pride is another, royalty a third. All of this has to do with reaching back to the past and to the African American past."

Ross says he's unwilling to choose sides on the debate over what kente really means. He even noted how in Ghana, which remains true to strip-weaving and to using kente in formal dress, there are many contemporary twists on kente's role in society. No longer only the garment to wear for the village festival or state function, Ross found kente at book signings, graduations, weddings, the laying of a cornerstone at a church, and even a check-presentation ceremony for a nonprofit.

"There are new ideas about Kente popping up all the time, even in how the word is used," he says. "I'd be reluctant to codify it -- to pin it down."

If anything, Ross looks forward to the continuing evolution of a living cloth. "Every year I see a new way to interpret kente," he says. "I'm anxious to see where it's going to be ten years from now."

About the Author

Tom Stabile is a freelance writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History received $163,942 from NEH to produce “Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity.”