|Cloth has been serving as a valued trade commodity as early as the eleventh century and continuing till the present time as a vital art form. Like all African textiles, Ghanaian cloth/ textiles communicate on many different levels, through their bold designs offbeat rhythms and motifs. Even machine woven or printed fabrics today are used to communicate on various levels. Just like in every other society, cloth or textiles is so much a part of the everyday life of Ghana which is easily taken for granted.
What is seen in Ghana today in terms of textiles is an eclectic mix of local and imported textiles for sale. The local comprising long established production centres of spinners, weavers, dyers, embroiderers, tailors and sales points with the possibilities for new forms and trade networks. European trading from the 16th century introduced the “fancy” printed textiles to Ghana known as the Java or Wax prints which were developed to satisfy the general West African need. These have had a significant bearing on the present state of textiles in Ghana.
Ghanaian Textiles can be identified in broad groups as:-
It is important to regard the order of listing indicating their significance in terms of value and social regard.
HAND-WOVEN TRADITIONAL TEXTILES (KENTE)
Of all Ghanaian textiles, Kente is perhaps the most important and most famous and represents as a National cloth of Ghana. It is worn only on very important religious and social occasions. By the 1960’s Kente also had become an adopted symbol of Pan-Africanism and Afro centric identity throughout the African Diaspora.
Names and History:-
The History and Name of this fabulous art form is mired in unresolved historical quagmire. There are two main types of Kente cloth from two distinct traditions and production centres.
There is however a third type of woven traditional textile mainly found in the Northern parts of Ghana. These are woven specifically for making a type of clothing known as the “Smock” the traditional wear of the Northern people. The smocks have however become popularized as alternative national garments for ceremonial occasions.
The name “Kente” is believed according to Ashanti lore to have been derived from “Kenten” which means basket maybe due to the similarity in the weave. Ashanti legend has it that the first weaver who was a hunter learnt his skills by observing and studying the spider spin its web. According to the Ewes, especially the Agortime weavers, Kente was known and is still known amongst them as “Agbamevo” which came from putting two words together. “Agba” which is the loom and “Avo” meaning woven cloth. It is believed however amongst the Ewes that the name “Kente” evolved from their fore bearers, Ewe weavers who were captives of the Ashanti Royal courts. Their lack of communication in Twi (which is the language of the Ashantis) pushed them to adopt creative sign communication in the process of teaching the Ashantis how to weave. They adopted such Ewe words like “Kee” (meaning create the shed by pressing the treadle) and “tee” (meaning compress, the weft yarn tightly) to demonstrate the technique of weaving. “Kee” tee” then became Kete (Kente).
Who wove Kente first depends on who you ask. There is a raging debate as to the early origins of this craft which is as old as the art form itself. The Ewes believe they were the first to develop the technique of Kente weaving and were invited by the Ashanti kings to teach the king’s court and weave for the kings (according to Ahiagble Bob Dennis, a master weaver). Whilst we will not dwell on this too much, it is significant to note the various legends associated with the craft.
The scene was set for the rise of the two weaving traditions, (the Ewe and Ashanti) in the colonial times when Europeans started trading in West Africa. The early foundations of these traditions were however of a relatively recent origin. What is certain is that the Savanna strip-weaving traditions are rooted in antiquity. Ashanti and Ewe have succeeded however in developing their still-evolving weaving traditions.
Design technique and Aesthetic Value
Kente weaving started or was inspired by the need to satisfy the demands of royalty and ceremony and the ambitious desires of the wealthy. These requirements have pushed the weavers of these fabrics to create majestic cloths that combine colour and patterns with sublime results. Colour is used to establish mood whilst motifs provide detail and meaning.
Three kinds of patterning are common:
Aesthetics and Usage
Both the Ashanti and Ewe Kente carry meanings in the motifs„ patterns and colour usage often relating to proverbs. Every weave has a name as displayed in the chart in the Exhibition.
There are gender differences in the production and weaving of Kente. On average a man’s size cloth measures 24 strips (8ft wide) and 12ft tong and is worn toga style. Women may wear either one piece or a combination of two to three pieces of varying sizes ranging from 5-12 strips (20 inches to 48 inches wide) and an average of 6ft in length. Worn as wrappers in a manner similar to the Sarong or Sari of Indian women with or without a blouse. Women of high status and advanced in age sometimes are seen wearing larger pieces in toga style like the men.
Social changes and modern circumstances have however affected how the above rudiments apply significantly. It however, still remains a fact that one assumes dignity when one wears Kente.
SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF ASHANTI & EWE KENTE
Asanti and Ewe Kente are similar in many respects in terms of tools, techniques, size, colour etiquette, uses and so on. There are however some significant differences that it is important to note.
Traditional weaves of Ashanti and Ewe Kente have obvious differences in terms of colour. Whilst the Ashanti Kente has a brighter, vibrant and dazzling colour effect overall, the Ewe Kente is sombre and muted but overall considered more sophisticated in general mood.
The Ashanti taste for imported luxury cloth and the sophistication demanded by the courts encouraged the development of particular weaves. Ashanti weavers therefore introduced shininess and bright colour as an attraction into their weave by unravelling the European silk imports brought in by the Danes around the C18th which yarns they re-wove into local designs.
There are other differences in patternation and use of motifs which were informed by geography and other cultural practices.
Ewe weavers are noted for the high quality of their cotton strip woven wrappers. They are not regulated by the court regulated designs of the Ashanti. Ewes have been free to express their skill and creativity to please clients.
It is worthy to note that a lot of the differences in Ashanti and Ewe Kente mentioned above are no longer obvious characteristics in contemporary weaving due to the changing needs, mass production, and cross avers in terms of migratory trends in the weaving trade.
HAND-PRINTED TRADITIONAL TEXTILES — AKAN ADINKRA
“Adinkra” in Akan means (saying goodbye or going ahead). Adinkra is an Ashanti cotton cloth produced at Ntonso North of Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. Printed textiles were previously unknown but for this one form of Ashanti textile which was developed around the C 18th . Graphic motifs are printed in black tar using stamps made from carved calabash (gourd). These are used to create individual patterns that have associated proverbs. Primarily developed for funerary purposes, they have also attained ceremonial status just like the Kente cloth and have similar usage but not at par value as the Kente cloth.
Adinkra was developed for royals to celebrate funerals. There are a plethora of symbols that the local printers choose from to create patterns that convey special messages and meanings. It usually comes printed in black tar on strong colours like black, red, brown, purple and the less traditional green- all associated culturally to mourning, seriousness and somber reflection. Over time however, various designs have been developed for celebratory events usually on white, yellow and blue- such as out-doors, special anniversaries etc.
Adinkra is also created for both males and females.
FANTI CLOTH —APPLIQUED AND EMBROIDERED TEXTILE “AKUNINTAMA”
“Akunintama” (the cloth of the great or achiever) – this is textiles that was originally produced by the Fanti people of the Central and Western Coast of Ghana. As the name implies, it was developed to honour great warriors and leaders of the Asafo companies which were originally formed along the lines of brigades.
The Fanti cloths are characterized by appliquéd or embroidered motifs of cultural import, usually historical, made out of colourful imported fabrics sewn onto larger fabrics. These motifs have specific messages related to the exploits, strengths and achievements of the one it is made for. They are usually produced for celebratory purposes only. Like the Kente cloth “Akunintarna” is only worn by clan heads, royal and leaders in society for special occasions. It has become adopted as a celebratory cloth by the Ga people of the Greater Accra Region of Ghana who are coastal settlers as well. Worn only by royalty and affluent in society. It is produced only for males.
Hand printing with block stamps Printing Blocks
MACHINE FANCY PRINT TEXTILES — (WAX PRINTS)
Contemporary Ghanaian everyday fashion is fed by Wax prints. These are cotton fabrics that are produced by fabric processing and printing outfits such as Vlisco, Akosombo Textiles and Printex in Ghana.
The vibrant colours and flamboyant designs of Wax printed cloth are more evocative of contemporary Ghana. Wax-printed cloth and cheaper roller printed imitations have become the most widely distributed African textiles. Whilst the Kente cloth, Adinkra and Fanti cloths can be situated comfortably as belonging to Ghana, the wax printed fabrics defy boundaries and are West African in identity. One can however identify subtle variations that can locate them within specific countries in terms of pattern, motif and colour so to speak.
This fabric/ cloth type has provided new and versatile means of elaborating African interest in the communicative and expressive power of dress.
Wax prints thus quickly became prestige items and trading chips whilst their imitated others were made available to the lower income group. This state of affairs still persists today.
The communicative potential of wax cloths is vast and varied. Commemorative designs that promote the wealthy and powerful is only one of the many. Current trends suggest the use of wax prints in sending subtle messages across in forms of imagery and associated proverbs. We won’t get into the details of these here. African wax printed cloth is far more than just colourful exotic mode of clothing. Its design repertoire blends contemporary African concerns with imagery drawn from the historical colonial legacy. It provides both everyday dress and raw material for exclusive designers. It celebrates traditional fabric designs, the novel and remarkable.
BATIK, TIE & DYE- WAX RESIST LOCAL CLOTH
The last group of textiles is the Batik (meaning “wax written”) and tie/ dye fabrics. These became popular in late 1960s and early 1970s in Ghana.
A network of Intermediate Technology Transfer units (ITTU’s) provides training and equipment to help local people especially women set up small scale businesses in textiles. With few start-up costs (batik making being much simpler to set up than mechanized fabric making) and needing little space, many women and some men have set up thriving businesses from their homes producing very brilliant and colourful fabrics mainly for the local low income market.
The process of batik (which was introduced into Ghana from South East Asia), is a process of patterning and colouring cloth that requires the use of wax to block the dye from parts of the cloth. Locally produced cotton is usually the preferred fabric. Other fabrics have however been experimented with by various fabric artists. It is quite labour intensive and provides employment for a lot of women locally.
The patronage of this fabric declined very much in the 1980s due to various reasons including preference for cheaper alternative imports from Asia and other places as well as a social denigration of the fabric. It has however seen a revival in recent years.
The “tie/ dye” technique (which requires tying the cotton fabric in sections to resist dyes and immersion in dyes) preceded the wax resist process of batik. It has however given ground to the batik as the preferred fabric making process and the process has just become one of the techniques used in combination with the batik process to produce textiles.
Batik artists also employed patternation and motifs that are communicative in nature and commemorative fabrics are also produced to mark significant events just like the wax prints.
Clothing and Etiquette
Appropriateness has a high premium in the way cloth is worn in Ghana to suit an occasion. The manner in which a cloth is worn is as important and of great value as the designs and quality of cloth. Appropriateness is also measured in dress etiquette in terms of colour symbolism.
Kente and Adinkra are usually only worn Toga Style. This inadvertently changes the general demeanour of the weaver into elegance completely assuming dignity. Except for the woven fabrics from the Northern Ghana which are woven specially for making Smocks and can therefore be cut up, woven cloth (Kente) and Adinkra will never be cut up into small pieces to make a dress. This is primarily because of the value of the textile and secondly, kente especially did not allow for free body movement in tight fitting dress design. Modern fashion designers have however found ways around this by commissioning lighter versions from contemporary weavers which they employ in their work.
Cotton fabrics (Wax prints, batik) and other fancy prints are therefore the preferred choices of fabrics for cutting up and sewn together into very creative and fashionable ensembles that seek to out do each other in skill and creativity. These notably come with very elaborate sleeves and shoulders.
Black and white is reserved for funerals for the elderly, which are mostly celebratory in nature especially when such deaths are accepted as natural and a fruitful end.
Among the Ewes, white is reserved for brave warriors who die hero’s deaths in battle.
White is also the dominant colour for other celebratory occasions such as weddings, outdoors, traditional marriages and thanks giving.
Textiles and Contemporary Art and Art Forms
Many artists like Atta Kwami, Owusu-Ankomah, Rikki Wemega-Kwawu have sourced either directly or indirectly from one traditional textile or the other in their current work and have achieved some considerable recognition for the results.
With some, the staccato geometric design compositions were an attraction, with others the jazzy colour compositions of the Kente cloth was the deal. My own work has had some romance with textiles and still maintains some characteristics of traditional Kente quality albeit subtle.
Perhaps the most recognizable and best known Artist whose work has had much success sourcing from traditional fabric is El Anatsui. He is an internationally recognized Ghanaian Artist who is noted for his monumental pieces exhibited all over the world (fabricated from Aluminum drink tops and wire) based on the tradition of Ghanaian textile practice and meaning. His work is the most reflective of the extent to which the qualities of Ghanaian textiles have influenced contemporary practice.
Textile manufacturing outfits in Ghana have seen an erosion of their foundations by the large importation of cheap and inferior textiles into the market in at least the last decade. This has come to upset some what the traditional hierarchy of the local textiles which has affected even the quality of the textiles produced today.
However, stakeholders in recent times are making all efforts to revive the flagging fortunes of the industry. The Ministry of trade has instituted prohibitive measures to discourage the importation of these “spoiler” fabrics. Established industries like Vlisco (GTP), Akosombo Textiles limited, Printex and others have also stepped up production levels to meet demands of the market and satisfy current trends with new designs.
In Ghana, textile constitutes a major and flourishing art that achieves many more things than just providing local repertoire for clothing, communication, social status and inspiration for artist working in other media. It tells a story of an evolving and dynamic society. It is “fabric” of society.
I have undertaken here to provide a point of entry into the fascinating history and world of Ghanaian textiles fully aware that we cannot completely exhaust the challenge of covering the whole essence of textiles in one session.