Africa’s creativity has a natural flow to it. This flow has inspired trends and birthed cultures around the world. Black Africans living in the diaspora has continued African traditions naturally – it is evident and dominant in our food, music, art, language, slang, dance and rhythm and more. We cannot deny our connection to Africa. I am delighted that today we are appreciating and embracing our deep-rooted relationship with our motherland.
Africa is naturally a melting pot containing some of the worlds most awe-inspiring cultures. Wherever you look, there are vibrant examples of artistic creativity through patterns. These patterns include unique shapes, textures and often lead back to different regions, countries and tribes across the wealthy land. African prints and designs are inspired by the abundant and beautiful nature and used as a form of expression or communication. The designs tell a story and give onlookers insight into the religious, social or political context in an abstract way. Patterns worn can also show the social hierarchy of the wearer, expressing the story of their position in society.
Below, we take a look at the meaning behind common African patterns.
Kente (Akan: nwentoma; Ewe: kete) is a Ghanaian textile made of handwoven cloth, strips of silk and cotton. The high quality and vibrant fabrics are created for both men and women. Depending on the wearer’s tribe, the colour will vary. Typically rich in colour, Kente cloth varies in religious or political motifs. Due to the fabric’s international popularity of Kente cloth patterns, print is a mass-produced version and regularly sold worldwide.
Mudcloth or bogolanfini is handmade and created by weaving colour and cloth together. Hunters mainly wear the pattern as a badge of status for ritual protection or as camouflage. Traditionally, after giving birth, women are wrapped in cloth as an initiation ritual into womanhood and keep away dangerous spirits.
Significant to Bambara mythology, bogolanfini fabrics are revered for their great historical and cultural relevance and are often worn during the Malian and French battles. It has a prominent place in traditional Malian culture and has become a symbol of Malian cultural identity. Today, the cloths are exported worldwide and used in fashion, decoration and fine art.
The Kuba people of Congo produce the popular African pattern. The cloth is hand-cut using leaves from the Raffia tree, then dyed with indigo and mud. Next, it is weaved into strips using a complex embroidery technique. In Kuba culture, men are responsible for raffia palm cultivation and the weaving of raffia cloth. The production is a slow process and results in each fabric being unique from another.
Various types of raffia cloth are produced for different purposes. The most popular form is a plain-woven cloth, used as the foundation for decorated textile production. The fibre is enhanced by geometric designs executed in linear embroidery. Next, it’s cut to form pile surfaces resembling velvet. Women are responsible for transforming raffia cloth into various items, including ceremonial skirts, ‘velvet’ tribute cloths, headdresses and more.
Each garment holds an essential and meaning with a handful of small unique sub-groups within the Kuba tribes.
Colours and meanings
With a generous amount of time and effort dedicated to producing a single African garment, many meanings, energy and spiritualities are infused into every piece. Patterns differentiate between tribes and are embedded with colours that represent different meanings:
- White symbolises purity and spirituality and is reserved for the purest of leaders or tribe members.
- Gold, which represents fertility and wealth, primarily worn by those hoping to achieve continued prosperity.
- Green represents prosperity, also a medicinal colour that is indicating good health.
- Red represents blood, politics, or spiritual tensions.
- Blue represents love and peace. The harmonious colour also reflects the sky, earth and water.
There is always a significant and profound meaning to African textiles. Africa continues to elevate and influence international fashion and trends. Beyonce’s “Black Is King” is another prime example of Africa’s richness being celebrated and adored worldwide. The symbolism, meanings and traditional context add an authentic flavour that is vibrant and powerful, like the beautiful people of the land.
We will delve deeper into “Woven Culture” in the next issue.