A Beautiful Cloth Does Not Wear Itself

October 14, 2001 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Oakland Museum

Slide Lecture

by Doran Ross, Director Emeritus
Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA

Asante and Ewe strip-woven cloth, or kente, is the most popular and best known of all African textiles, linked to royalty in Africa and to black racial pride in the U.S. The traditional dress of kings of Ghana, kente is a colorful stripwoven and pieced textile, one of the world’s great textile traditions.
Mr. Ross, co-curator of the exhibition “Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity,” discussed the principal themes of the exhibit as they relate to contemporary life in Africa and the United States. His slide lecture showed that kente’s place is not only in the culture of Ghana but has been adopted in other parts of Africa and the African Diaspora, spreading to the United States where it has been incorporated into contemporary American life.

Kente is traditionally hand-woven by men using cotton, rayon, and, occasionally, silk yarn. Asante kente is noted for its bright primary colors with geometric motifs woven at intervals, while Ewe kente often has a “tweedy” effect and figurative designs.

There is a large vocabulary of pattern names connected with kente, which reveals a sophisticated array of proverbs and history within the complicated variety of warp- and weft-faced designs. Some pattern names may refer to individuals for whom the designs were originally woven, while others allude to specific events, household objects, adages or certain circumstances associated with the cloth’s use.

Long strips of kente are pieced together to create the large toga-sized textile that has long been a part of traditional Ghanaian society and ritual culture. Its uses include royal “enstoolment” ceremonies, state shields, state drums, presentation gifts, decoration for deity figures, sword coverings, royal fans, funeral shrouds.

Leaders wore kente at state occasions as a symbolic means of proclaiming their authority and wealth, and it remains one of the continuing prerogatives of Asante chiefs. In Ghana today, kente is still is worn only for important ceremonies and occasions, symbolizing its sacred, spiritual nature. However, kente is not limited to use as clothing since it may adorn several items of royal regalia and function in other situations as well.

Kente is most frequently seen in public during the spectacular array of festivals that periodically illuminate most of southern Ghana and Togo.  Almost all are major annual events, times of homecoming and thanksgiving, opportunities to renew ties with family, friends, and birthplace. Many involve elaborate rites of purification to ensure continuity of clan and state. Remembering and honoring the ancestors are key features of most such events. Prayers for children, health, and prosperity are customarily employed in seeking the aid and protection of important deities. Some of these festivals are also linked to first fruits of the harvest cycle.

Kente’s prominent role as a garment has led to its also serving as a prestigious gift item. This may take the form of an outright gift of textile or a gift of the right to wear particular patterns. It is given at the end of the school year as a graduation gift, and has been presented by the Ashanti to visiting royalty and foreign dignitaries including former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Kente may have had its origins as the exclusive prerogative of Asante or other akan chiefs, but by the end of the nineteenth century it increasingly functioned in non-royal circumstances. At the end of the twentieth century it could be worn by anyone capable of affording it in almost any situation that merited prestige dress. For at least the past twenty years, key officers of the traditional warrior groups (asafo) of the Fante have occasionally worn kente in lieu of the more traditional batakari, or war shirt. Women officers wear it more often than men and some female subgroups of asafo companies dress entirely in kente.

With the advent of Christian weddings, kente has become appropriate attire for the bride and groom. The wearing of kente in college graduation ceremonies dates back to at least 1963 when W.E.B. Du Bois and members of the faculty of the University of Ghana were photographed at the presentation of an honorary degree to the American scholar.

Here in America, kente is worn as part of church celebrations and school graduation ceremonies, for Juneteenth, Kwanzaa, and other holidays, and as a means of connecting African Americans to their African origins. In recent years, McDonald’s hamburger chain has offered a collectible series of cups printed with different kente patterns, and the toy company Mattel has released a series of dolls in kente dress, including one called “Ghanaian Barbie.”  Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman wore a kente strip at her first inauguration and singer Stevie Wonder wore a bright green kente-lined jacket to the closing ceremonies of the centenary Olympics in Atlanta.

Whatever its form, kente’s distinctive bold designs and vibrant color have given it universal appeal. It is one of the most popular of all African textiles and represents one of the finest contributions to African design and an enduring symbol of African cultural heritage.

(notes courtesy of Doran H. Ross, “A Beautiful Cloth Does Not Wear Itself,” and the Newark Museum.)