Inside the Collection

African culture, textiles from Zaire

Bakuba skirt
A10691 Textile, raphia and bark, skirt, Bakuba, Africa, 1940.Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Walking through the Powerhouse’s storage area the other day, I stopped off to have another look at some of my favourite textiles in the collection. They are the amazing Kuba dancing skirts, made in what was once the Belgian Congo and is now Zaire, in Central Africa, and worn by Kuba women at community ceremonial events associated with birth, marriage and death. Made from woven, beaten, embroidered and tufted raffia, these skirts are put together from panels and strips decorated with geometric designs that may look remarkably familiar.

Bakuuba skirt in detail photograph
A10691 bakuuba skirt in detail. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Pieces of Kuba cloth are collected and traded out of Africa and regularly turn up on western markets where they are sold as highly desirable cushions and wall hangings, whose jagged designs and earthy colours bring some of the strength and vibrancy of Africa into contemporary homes.

Traditionally, the production of these textiles in Zaire is a collaborative process. Men grow and harvest the raffia and weave it into mats on single-heddle looms; once off the loom, the mats are hemmed all round and both women and men then decorate them, in a range of ways that nevertheless conform to an overall completely recognisable Kuba design repertoire. Both men and women are again involved in piecing the individually decorated cloths together to make large wrap-around garments such as the dancing skirts.

Also inspected on my rounds were some apparently much less riveting textiles, a group of plain, undecorated raffia mats which were cut from the loom long ago and remain unhemmed. This type of mat was once used as currency by the Bakuba (the people of Kuba), and seems to indicate how highly raffia – and mats woven from raffia were valued by them. However, and this is where the story really gets interesting, these particular mats were originally collected in Zaire by the astonishing May French-Sheldon on one of her last visits to Africa in 1905. Wealthy and well-travelled, French-Sheldon first went to Africa on her own in 1891, hiring some 150 African porters to enable her extraordinary procession through West Africa to Mount Kilimanjaro and back. She wore, it is reliably reported, an elaborate white silk court dress from the famed House of Worth with a tiara placed on her waist-length blonde wig, and carried a whip, hip pistols and a ceremonial sword. A precocious feminist, French-Sheldon saw herself as an equal of the many male explorers who went to Africa in the mid to late 1800s, even referring to herself at times as Bebe Bwana, which means ‘Woman Man’. French-Sheldon’s currency mats are a neat reminder of this extraordinary woman and her place in the long narrative of feminist history.

For more on French-Sheldon, read White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity by Tracey Jean Boisseau, 2004.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *