Noted for its attractive and bright colour schemes, a beautiful kente design is stuck on the walls of the entryway to the Permanent Exhibition of the African Collection at the Museum Fünf Kontinente. Its wide array of colours and strategic placement invites spontaneous spectatorship and captures into consciousness of visitors, the Afrocentric sense of colour use which is a precursor to the continental origin of the fabric. Indeed, kente originate from Ghana located on the African continent. Kente fabric designs have also gained international reputation and attracted considerable amount of research that centre on its historicity, weave structure, symbolic patterns, semiotic power, design structure, and its loom and the corresponding accessories, amongst others. Featuring the kente design in the collection by the curatorial team complements to drawing renewed attention to the indigenous fabric design technology of Africa.
Historically, kente has been known as a cloth which was a preserve for royals (kings and the chiefdom) in the Asante kingdom. It was later produced for use by all in the society. Being a fabric for royals, it signifies pride, wealth, power, authority and status of wearers. Though its usage extends to all, the kente designs worn by the Asante Kings are unique, distintive and of couture standard. The culture of adorning the Asante Kings with the top notch kente designs as in the ancient times has, therefore, not been eroded. In the court of the Kings were seasoned kente designers and weavers carefully selected to produce stunning kente design that are not found on the market. The fabric was woven with variously dyed handspun cotton yarns, in plain and double weave format in the form of stripes usually determined by their design structure. The stripes are joined together with the aid of a needle to form a wide sheet of fabric. The zigzag machine has become a replacement in joining the stripes together.
On the political sence of Ghana, the first president of the country, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s introduction of national dress agenda evoked the kingly use of the fabric in presidential inauguration ceremonies which has become a non-statutory policy emulated by six out of eight democratically elected presidents of Ghana from 1960 to present (Essel 2019). Nkrumah was the pacesetter in the use of kente in toga style for presidential inauguration in the history of Ghana. Prior to that he had worn kente fashion to political events and meetings in and outside Ghana before he became the president of the nation. His exemplary use of the Ghanaian fashion classic has been maintained and practised for more than half a century, though it is non-statutory.
Apart from its aesthetic clout, kente comes with symbolic patterns, whose decoding reveal the philosophical message encoded in the woven patterns of the fabric. Structurally, the kente fabric design featured in this exhibition encompasses variations of babadua, kaw, nkyemfre and fa hia kɔtwere Agyeman patterns, amongst others.
Figure 2: Top row: Variations of Babadua patterns. Bottom row:Names of some identifiable Kente patterns
Babadua is a name of a plant based on which the pattern was developed. The plant is noted for its strong look and resilience, perhaps a reason for its choice. Babadua, therefore, signifies strength, resiliency, formidability, firmness, superiority and power. These symbolic attributes of babadua is communicated by its wearer to observers. There are variations of babadua patterns used by kente designers (Figure 2). Some of the variations of babadua patterns are captured in the kente design (Figure 1). Nkyemfre (‘a pot shed’) pattern, depicted with alternating right-angled triangular shapes, symbolises history, recyclability and healing power, knowledge and service while Kaw mframa pattern derived from the physical characteristics of centipede, symbolises uniqueness. Fa hia kↄtwere Agyeman (literally translated as ‘lean your poverty on Agyeman’), arranged in the form of staircase in diagonals stands for hope, faith, sharing and benevolence (Essel, 2019). Combination of these observable kente patterns deftly arranged to communicate the idea of history, power, hope, pride, healing power, knowledge and service. The philosophical interpretation of kente designs could be informed by decoding its symbolical patterns. It could be observed that the variations of Babadua patterns dominate in the design (Figure 1). The dominance of this pattern informs the overall message embedded in the design. In this context, the fabric sings praises to the power and superior status of a king or chief in keeping intact the history and indigenous knowledge systems of the society.
Kente has become a prominent visual image and identity marker used in reference to the African continent. For instance congressional democracts led by Nancy Pelosi on June 2020 wore kente stoles to make political statement in pursuit of legislative goals of equality for Black people. This occured in solidarity of the gruesome death of the African-American George Floyed in the hand of white police and police brutality in the US. The kente fabric adorned by the lawmakers was used to signify African heritage and pride. During the 400th anniversary celebration of the arrival of enslaved Africans to America in 2018, the Congressional Black Caucus wore kente in paying allegiance to their African heritage. Kente fabric, therefore, has strong historical connections with Blacks across the globe.
Teaching and learning of kente fabric with the focus on history, sociocultural, political significance and educational relevance; improving the production technique for mass production purposes; improving of loom and its accessories; and alternate way of creating handmade kente print, among others, informed my teaching. Learners under my tutelage also explore appropriation of the symbolic kente patterns and engage in experimenting with kente designs.
published January 2021
- Essel, O. Q. (2019). Dress fashion politics of Ghanaian presidential inauguration ceremonies from 1960 to 2017. Fashion & Textiles Review, 1(3), 35 – 55.
This article is part of a gallery: Perspectives from Ghana on Museum Objects in Germany
The Kente fabric in the depot of the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Photos: Sophia Lubin)