Bridge across the seas

May 31, 2000 at 12:00 am

In Ghana, a myth tells of two brothers, Nana Kuragu and Nana Ameyaw, who go hunting in the woods and discover a clever spider, Ananse, spinning a web. After observing Ananse in action, the brothers bring their newfound knowledge of weaving back to the village of Bonwire.

Thus begins West Africa’s rich history of textile making, including Ghana’s golden treasure, kente cloth, arguably the most admired of all African textiles. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit proudly presents a new exhibit depicting the time-honored tradition of kente production with Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity. This enormous exhibit (taking up two of the Museum’s three galleries and touring to eight museums across the country) includes nearly 700 objects: Among them are kente made by master weavers of the Asante and Ewe cultures, displays of looms, and videos showing how kente is made.

Depicted in these videos, youths work the looms intensely, making it look all too easy. Creating a graceful yet fast-moving, rhythmic dance, these weavers possess a whole-body art. Hands quickly pull the thread back and forth; the toes, attached to cords, march up and down to hold and release the thread. All the while, the mind keeps constant vigilance over every design element, ready to put them down in their proper place. Gorgeous patterns of color seem to appear magically out of nowhere.

The cloth captivates the senses: Vibrant hues of gold, blue, burgundy and green overtake the eyes. Throughout this brilliant aesthetic is an all-encompassing order, bringing forth a feeling of tranquility, a meditative state in which to absorb all the lustrous beauty. Touching it provides a warm, soft, pleasant feeling between the fingers. The kente seems to cry out, "Hold me against your skin!"

Kente cloth not only illustrates sensual beauty, it also communicates complex ideas. Bamidele Demerson, director of exhibitions and research at the museum, explains, "Each segment of cloth is an ideogram; it expresses a complete idea. For instance, when you see a zigzag line, it means ‘to go and come.’" Demerson, among many other historians, points out that the "cultural memory" of textile making was never stamped out by slavery – a similar blocking of patterns can be found in African-American quilts. Pointing out a pattern in a piece of kente with a set of triangles, Demerson states, "This design in quilting traditions is known as ‘Flying Geese.’ Quilts were created to serve as codes or reading devices – the flying geese refer to men and women escaping slavery. This design implicitly carried an idea: The best time to escape north is in the spring, like the geese."

Kente is so entwined with Ghana’s culture and history that it even appears in the country’s flag. The flag’s colors – red, yellow and green – also appear in Oyokoman kente, credited in Asante oral tradition as the original kente, created in the 17th century by Ota Kraban.

In 1957, Ghana became independent of British colonial rule and the first president of the new republic of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, brought kente to the globe. As Ghana’s independence was celebrated the world over, the print media in the United States, especially the black press, provided photographic images of Nkrumah, always appearing adorned fully in kente. Ghana, its leaders and their colors became symbols of freedom and unity for African peoples everywhere.

Originally, kente was worn only by Asante and Ewe kings and queen mothers, and only during ceremonial occasions. Now democratized, it’s considered the national dress of the country, worn by everyone who can afford it. Today, Africans all over wear kente to make their connection to the motherland and their heritage. Kente has made its way into hats, ties, bags, liturgical robes and graduation robes.

Toward the end of the exhibit, a group of paintings hangs on one wall, created by Ghanaian artists and depicting prominent individuals wearing kente: Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and Bill Clinton. Next to the paintings, a text states that representing these influential figures in such a way "empowers the cloth."

This point, however, is largely debatable by many who have seen the show. The cloth itself already contains the stories, ideas and reflections of the master weaver, who swiftly passed one single thread from side to side, over and over, until it was finished. All the memories and dreams held deep inside come through the weaving and are then shared with the receiver of the cloth.

Perhaps wearing kente adds to the power embodying the cloth – melding people together into a unified whole.

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