Design Geek: How Ghana's Kente Cloth Became A Worldwide Phenomenon

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    Design Geek: How Ghana's Kente Cloth Became A Worldwide Phenomenon

    Design Geek: How Ghana's Kente Cloth Became A Worldwide Phenomenon
    Darkroom London

    What's it called? Kente (pronounced KEN-TEH)

    Where's it from? The Akan States of Ghana, particularly Ashanti

    Who's got it? Project Bly, Novica, OpenSky

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    More Than A Trend

    Anyone who loves design, whether in fashion or home decor, knows that it's all about the trends. They come and they go.  Some of the best trends never fade, or come in and out of fashion every couple of years. Others leave us shaking our heads as to how they could ever have achieved such popularity in the first place, but then they can make a comeback too. Usually the ebb and flow of trends can be attributed simply to the vagaries of changing tastes. But sometimes a recurring trend is part of something bigger, a cultural shift expressed in a current fashion. And when that happens it is something to remember.  

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    The Kente Cloth Revolution

    In the 1980s and 90s, Kente cloth was an incredibly popular trend. In both clothing and home decor it was the primary pattern of the popular Afro-centric style of the time. If you watched any number of television shows you likely saw it.  If you went to rap concerts or dance clubs you probably wore it. And if you loved African design, you likely loved it too. What you may not have known is that the Kente cloth revolution of the late 20th century was also the global reemergence of a trend that was once unique to the aristocrats of the Ashanti Kingdom in what is present day Ghana, in West Africa. And while the trend which ran its course by the turn of the century shows no sign of returning, it is worth noting that its second act was as much an act of history as of fashion. 

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    A Display of Royalty

    Along with Bono, Denkyera, Akwamu, Fante (Fanti) and others, the Ashanti (Asante) Kingdom was one of several polities belonging to the Akan people, whose territory covered much of the costal area of modern day Ghana, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire (1). Founded in the 18th century by King Osei Tutu, Ashanti quickly rose to become the largest and most powerful of the gold-producing Akan states (2). Kente cloth was originally created to display the wealth and sophistication of the royalty as a type of formal regalia reserved only for special occasions (3). Known locally as nwentoma, the word Kente derives from "kenten," meaning basket - a reference to the basket-like appearance of the weaving and the raffia fabric that was originally used for both (4). Like so many African cultural artifacts, the weaving of Kente cloth is more than a process of textile manufacture, it is a complex visual language and a ritual in which every component has meaning. 

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    Woven Words

    Design Geek: How Ghana's Kente Cloth Became A Worldwide Phenomenon

    "Weaving apparatus are handmade by the weavers themselves or by others who have specialized in equipment making. A set of weaving apparatus includes the loom, Kofi nsadua ("a Friday-born loom"), which is constructed with wood; a set of two, four or six heddles (asatia, asanan or asasia) attached to treadles with pulleys (awidle) with spools (donowa) inserted into them; shuttles (kurokurowa) with bobbins (awua) inserted into them; beaters (kyeree), and sword stick (tabon). Other supporting equipment are the skein winder (fwirdie) and bobbin winder (dadabena), bobbins holder (menkomena), used for holding bobbins (awua) during warp-laying (nhomatene) and the heddle-making frame (asakuntun or asadua). These apparatus, like motifs in a cloth, have symbolic meanings and are accorded a great deal of respect." - Midwest Global Group

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    Color With Meaning

    Beyond the significance attached to the weaving process, every part of the finished cloth contributes to it's overall meaning. Every color used in a Kente pattern carries with it a specific meaning. These can range from healing and good fortune, to harmony, spiritual healing and love (5). In all there are more than ten different colors  that are common to most Kente cloths, each with a multitude of possible meanings. A more compete list of the symbolism embedded in the various colors can be found here

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    Patterns That Tell A Story

    Even the warps and wefts of a finished Kente cloth carry meaning. Often the wefts are the determining factor for deciding the name and overall meaning of the piece (6). The yarns are woven into individual geometric patterns that are repeated throughout the fabric. These small patterns carry names and meanings all their own such as Ohene Anewa ("The king sees everything), Nkyimkyim ("life is not a straight path") and Niyata ("two-edged sword") (7). 

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    Invoking Tradition

    Once finished the completed fabric takes on their final identity. There are more than three hundred extant Kente cloth patterns, each with names and meanings. Some, such as Oyokoman cloth, are named for clans. This pattern, which was the first colorful Kente pattern, was worn by Otumfuo Nana Prempeh I, the thirteenth king of Ashanti, who hailed from the Oyokoman clan (8). Others invoke traditional sayings such as "Obaakofu Mmu Man" ("one person does not rule a nation") or "Abusua Ye Dom" ("the extended family is a force")(9). 

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    A Symbol of Freedom

    The finalization of European power in Africa was neither immediate nor easily achieved. Despite centuries of growing British influence in the region it was not until 1901 that the Ashanti Kingdom officially became a British protectorate. Following the defeat of the Ashanti in The War of the Golden Stool, waged by the famous warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa, the Ashanti Kingdom was officially incorporated into Britain's Gold Coast Colony (10). Yet In little more than fifty years the Ashanti would gain their independence along with all of Ghana (11). It would be that achievement and the worldwide celebration that it would ignite that would bring Kente cloth into the wardrobes and homes of people all over the world for years to come. 

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    Kente & Pan-Africanism

    On March 6, 1957, Ghana was declared independent of British rule (12). Though by some reckonings this places Ghana as the first African country to achieve this feat, there is ample room for disagreement on this score (13). What is clearer however, is that the liberation of Ghana under then-president, Kwame Nkrumah, was the crowning achievement of the Pan-African movement which had been working on several continents over the course of many years to improve the political lot of people descended from Africa all over the world and particularly on the continent itself (14).  

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    Design and Politics

    Originating in the 18th century work of Edward Wilmot Blyden, and formalized as a term in 1900 by English barrister Henry Sylvester Williams, Pan-Africanism was a series of intellectual, political and cultural movements informally arranged around W.E.B. DuBois' Pan-African Congresses (15). With the liberation of African nations as one of its chief aims, the Pan-African Movement encompassed the work of such luminaries as James Africanus Beale and Frederick Douglass, as well as CLR James and George Padmore. Both James and Padmore, friends since childhood, were mentors to Nkrumah before and during his presidency, with Padmore taking an official position in Nkrumah's administration (16).

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    Shared Heritage & Shared Hope

    As Ghana grew in importance on the world stage the traditional woven cloth of the Akan also took on a new global significance. Kente cloth became a symbol of shared African heritage as well as the hope and determination for a bright future to come. The transition was not entirely accidental. Both DuBois and Nkrumah - himself an Akan though not of Ashanti extraction - worked to make Kente cloth the unifying icon that it became, wearing it at key public moments. When Nkrumah was released from prison in 1957, days after his political party won a crucial election, he emerged from captivity wearing a Kente pattern named Mmeeda (MEE-DAH), meaning, "something that has not happened before." Later that year as he announced his nation's independence he wore the pattern Adwini Asa or, "I have done my best" (17). And when Nkrumah wed the Egyptian-born, Fathia Rizk, the "market women" - powerful business figures who controlled the textile trade - expressed their approval of his choice with the creation of a pattern called Fathia fata Nkrumah or "Fathia suits Nkrumah" (18). Though Nkrumah would eventually be deposed in 1966 while away from the country, Ghana would remain a major symbol for Pan-Africanists around the world. In his last years, W.E.B. DuBois would make Ghana his home, exchanging his American citizenship for Ghanaian (19).

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    A Rich Historical Tradition

    In design as in everything else, history takes strange turns, constantly taking old ideas and reimagining them to fit new and unexpected circumstances. In this case, a form of weaving created to set kings apart from the common people of one nation became a symbol of common heritage, common circumstances and common cause for people of many nations around the world. In the process, Kente cloth did what the best trends always do - it captured a moment of great importance in a changing world. And whether or not Kente comes around for a third time the circumstances of its second iteration beg the question that when people look back on our time, what will be the moments, the ideas and the designs that will define us?