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Kuba Cloth

The art of the Kuba of Zaire, which ranges from pipes to cups, metal to weapons, basketry to furniture to textiles, is remarkable for its abstract patterning. Traditional appliqued cloth was primarily made into dance skirts. Skirts and embroidered Kuba textiles were produced and used for ceremonial occasions and court rituals. Until it was replaced by cowry shells, the basic Kuba weaving unit, an undecorated square of plain cloth, the mbal, was used as currency. Kuba cloth is woven from raffia palm leaves. Production of the fine decorative textile is a series of endeavors engaging both men and women. The men are responsible for the growing, tending, harvesting and weaving of the cloth. The women are responsible for preparing it for decoration by pounding the stiff, rough cloth in a large wooden mortar until softened, for hemming and in some cases, treatment with brown, wine-red, black blue or yellow dye from local plant sources. The women create the cut pile embroidered panels as well. The men's dancing skirts are significantly longer than that of the women’s, sometimes having distinct borders with fringe and raffia bobbles. The women’s skirts up to nine yards in length, would be wound around the body several times and folded over a belt. Some of the decorative techniques incorporated by both men and women are applique and reverse applique, dyeing, tie-dyeing and resisted-dyeing, certain types of embroidery as well as patchwork. Patchwork in Kuba cloth came about because of the softening process. The pounding would cause holes to develop in the cloth that would need to be repaired; thus patchwork would be used. To further enhance the look and to balance the visual effect, other patches of various geometric designs were added. Some dancing skirts can take up to two years before all the cloth needed to finish the skirt has been gathered. The Kuba’s primary contemporary use of the cloth is at funerals of wealthy elders. The traditional techniques used to create the cloth have survived because of these funerals, enabling us to continue to enjoy the extraordinary creative Kuba textiles.

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