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Weaving History: Kente Cloth and Naming Conventions in Ghana

Wrap-Around Garment (Kente), early to mid 20th Century
Akan or Ewe culture; Ghana
Cotton and silk; 66 1/2 × 105 in.
Anonymous Gift

Like words composing complex thoughts, the colors and patterns of Ghana’s kente cloth work together to symbolize intricate ideas. The vibrantly-colored fabric not only tells of Ghana’s history; these textiles have evolved throughout the 20thCentury to serve as a symbol of pan-African identity.

A close-up of 2016.15.30 reveals how kente are sewed
together as well as the intricacy of their make.
It is difficult to trace the exact history of kente cloth. Though it is now estimated that loom-woven textiles in the region may date as far back as thousands of years ago, the origins of kente vary greatly depending on the source. Its mythological beginning is that during the reign of Oti Akenten (1630-1660), the chief of Ghana’s Ashanti people, two brothers from the Ashanti village of Bonwire, which remains to date the capital of kente, watched a spider weave a web until they themselves had learned how to craft kente. The mythological beginning likely has some basis in fact. It was in these years that new trade routes crossing the Sahara Desert brought silks from the Far East for the first time. Rather than learning from the spider though, weavers likely saw beautiful opportunities in the silk fabrics which had survived an unforgiving desert. They disassembled the swaths into string and rewove it into the first designs.
To this day silk is still used to make kente, but more commonly it is dyed cotton which is woven into the numerous four-inch strips of fabric which are sewn together. The weaving of kente on a double-heddle loom is an enthralling sight: rows of warp threads are shuttered open and shut with foot pedals, while the shuttles with the weft thread are passed rapidly between them and the resulting rows are beaten down to tighten the weave. Once the individual strips of fabric have been woven, they are sewn together to create a large rectangular garment that would traditionally have been worn by men in a way that resembles a Roman toga.
Wrap-Around Garment (Kente), early to mid 20th Century
Akan or Ewe culture; Ghana
Cotton and silk; 63 1/2 × 104 in.
Anonymous Gift
As mentioned before what makes kente so exceptional, and a large component of why it is now so globally popular, is that each arrangement of a cloth’s colors and patterns uniquely corresponds to either a name or a phrase. Keeping in mind that kente are sewn together from many strips of woven fabric, it becomes easy to see how a textile can become complex enough to develop its own language. One of the most famous kente patterns was first made in 1957 for the then President of Gambia, Kwame Nkrumah, and his Egyptian bride, Fathia, on the occasion of their wedding. It is now known by many names, but the original meaning translates to “Fathia defends Nkrumah.” Its important symbolism is created by three designs: Mpuaa, heads or heads coming together in committee; Nkyinkyim, a barricade; and Apremoo, thunder or power. In 1960 a silk version of this same design was presented to the United Nations by Nkrumah, though now its name translated to “one head cannot go into council.” Later still, after Nkrumah was deposed, it was translated to mean “one person does not rule a country or nation.” Strictly speaking designs do not correlate exactly to phrases, but rather ideas which can be interpreted and reinterpreted. Based upon similar designs, the two Bowers’ kente may use the Akyem Apemdesign, an emblematic representation of the shield and political vigilance.
Before Ghana was colonized by England, designs all had to be approved by the Ashanti king, who held copyright over their usage. Weavers were as much historians as anything else, ensuring that new designs did not encroach on preexisting ones. With the commercialization of kente in especially the late 20thCentury, this enforcement has waned. Now one can purchase bags, sandals, and even bookmarks which speak more to consumerism rather than the old adages held by traditional designs. Despite moving away from its Ashanti meaning, due in large part to Nkrumah showcasing a kente for the U.N., it has now been adopted as symbol of pan-African identity.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

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