The Kuba skirts and overskirts worn by men and women on special occasions such as festivals and funerals are among the most extraordinary of African textiles. Woven by men and embellished by women in the Kuba region in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, they are decorated with patterns and motifs that are bold and intricate, irregular and ordered, and may refer to the social status of the wearer. Notable not only for their beauty but also for their scale, some garments reach nearly thirty feet in length, notes Marie-Thérèse Brincard, curator of Kuba Textiles: Geometry in Form, Space, and Time, a historic exhibition, organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art
, Purchase College, SUNY. Worn wrapped around and around the body several times, the textiles are distinctive and spectacular. The exhibition will be on view from March 1 through June 14, 2015.
Kuba Textiles provides the rare opportunity to see, for the first time, works from two of the earliest collections of textiles from the Kuba region: the Musée Royal de lAfrique Centrale, Tervuren, Belgium, and the Sheppard Collection at Hampton University in Virginia. Included in the exhibition are forty-one skirts and overskirts and forty-one objects, many dating from just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Considered in their historical context and displayed publicly in this exhibition for the very first time, Kuba Textiles provides ambitious new scholarship on one of Africas most important artistic forms.
For a long time, the study of African art emphasized sculpture, considered by Western collectors to be Africas major art form, writes Ms. Brincard in the fully-illustrated, 140-page catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. Textiles, pottery, decorative arts, and furniture, which are of equal cultural importance in African societies, were for a long time neglected or ignored. Kuba Textiles fundamentally changes that approach to the arts of Africa. [The] cloth [is] made in looms of native construction, soaked and pounded, soft as linen... an observation by the African-American Presbyterian missionary, William Henry Sheppard, the first Westerner to be received by the reigning king Kuba king, Kot a Mbweeky II, in 1892.
The creation of these skirts and overskirts is a complex and lengthy process, which includes weaving, dyeing, and embellishing with embroidery, appliqué, patchwork, and additional dye. It can take a month of steady work for one small square of a Kuba textile to be completed. Designs are generated from more than 200 traditional patterns.
The workmanship and patterning are simply exquisite, notes Ms. Brincard, who points out that Kuba textiles have influenced twentieth-century Western art, most notably in details of paintings by Gustav Klimt, as well as in stage design, a form highlighted in the exhibition through the inclusion of an imposing costume made from actual Kuba cloth by the great German set designer, Jürgen Rose, for the character of King Marke in Wagners Tristan und Isolde. This remarkable garment, on loan from New York Citys Metropolitan Opera, speaks to the creativity of the Kuba peoples and exemplifies the influence of their design on generations of artists.
Kuba Textiles considers skirt and overskirt embellishment within the context of Kuba style generally, but unlike other exhibitions that view these works alongside a panoply of Kuba arts, this show considers them alongside directly related objects.
The first section of the exhibition features the earliest known wooden sculpture of a seated Kuba king (ndop) from the eighteenth-century, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. As depicted on the carving, richly embellished accessories will be displayed alongside the carved wooden sculpture. These objects are drawn from the Musée Royal de l Afrique Centrale. The inclusion of a royal sculpture recalls the importance of embroidered textiles among the Kuba peoples since the founder of the kingdom was identified with wearing lavish woven cloth.
The second sectionthe core of the exhibitiondisplays selected skirts and overskirts, the surfaces of which are entirely covered with embroidered, appliquéd, or tie-dyed patterns often distributed over the surface in an asymmetrical or irregular way. Amid the textiles there are two small clusters of objects. One of these groupings features postcards and trade cards that illustrate the ways in which images popularized Kuba arts including the splendor of the Kuba king around the globe throughout the twentieth century. The other cluster displays cosmetic boxes that contained tukula, a powder extracted from a hard wood tree used not only as a cosmetic but also to dye textiles, as well as an ensemble of tukula blocs, known as mbwoong itool, which feature motifs similar to those found on many of the skirts. Made only by Kuba women, these small carved blocks, crafted from a camwood paste, were often used as gifts in funerary celebrations.
The exhibition concludes by suggesting the influence of Kuba textile design on twentieth century Western art and stage design, pairing Kuba textiles with both enlarged facsimile details of a well-known painting by the great Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), as well as a garment designed by the great German costume designer, Jürgen Rose (b. 1937). In both instances, the painting and the costume borrow from Kuba patterns, share its affinity for the ubiquity of ornamentation, and demonstrate the continuing influence of Kuba design internationally.