|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:-
Hand woven traditional textiles (Kente)
Hand printed traditional textiles (Adinkra)
Fanti cloth —Appliqued and Embroidered (Akunintama)
Machine printed fabrics (Wax prints/ fancy prints)
Wax resist local fabrics (batiks)
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.
The Ashanti Kente which is produced mainly in Bonwire in Ashanti Region, which occupies the central middle belt of Ghana and,
The Ewe Kente which is a product of a couple of locations such as Agortime-Kpetoe and Agbozume in the Volta Region of Ghana. The Ewes occupy the South Eastern portions of Ghana and also spread into Togo, Benin and South-Western Nigeria to a small extent.
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
The patternation of cloth by bands of different colours and designs is a fascinating form of decoration practiced by the weavers of the Ashanti and Ewe traditions. Weaving an exceptional Kente cloth is a complex operation requiring years of training and mastery of the medium, skill and creativity, the artist must also have a high sense of concept.
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.
Weaving Apparatus in this craft are hand made by the weavers themselves or other specialists in the locality associated with the craft. These include the hand-loom, comprising a wooden framed cage-like structure that can contain the weaver, heddles, treadles, pulleys, spools, shuttles, bobbins, yarns from locally grown cotton or unravelled from cotton and silk fabrics imported from Europe and Asia. Today, one can have access to factory made cotton, silk and rayon-yarns produced in Ghana or imported. Silk is considered or regarded as the most prestigious and highly valued especially amongst the Ashantis. Traditionally, Kente weaving was male dominated and women played a significant role in this craft by spinning raw cotton into yarns, dyeing the yarns, sewing the strips together and marketing.
The method/ technique used in Kente weaving is known as strip-weaving: a textile production technique using very small traditional hand-looms to produce long narrow lengths of fabric of 4 inch width which may be joined edge-wise to create square or rectangular covers.
Three kinds of patterning are common:
Warp stripping requires using different colours of warp yarn in the preparation of the loom. This allows for the repeat of patterns in the cloth, and is the common technique.
The second type of patterning is rather more complicated but depends on the spreading of the warp elements apart as the loom is prepared, In the weave, the warps are hidden by the weft. This allows for the creation blocks of colour across the cloth or alternated into a chequer board effect or a random scatter colour effect.
The third type of woven pattern involves an additional or supplementary weft that "floats" across the warps. Only the Ashanti and Ewe weavers bring all these weaves together in one strip of fabric.
AESTHETIC AND USAGE
Woven Kente cloth is a great status symbol.
It marks wealth and in the past, office as it was only reserved for royalty especially in Ashanti.
Choice of clothing to be worn on important occasions, Kente has continued to be associated with cultural sophistication.
The designs were also woven to mark very important dates and events in history (Historical references) eg. "Ohene Afro hyen" (the King has boarded a ship) to commemorate Asantehene, Agyeman Prempeh II, travel abroad on a ship. There is even a new design named after one of our former presidents J. A. Kufuor known as "Kufuor apegya Ghana Kufuor has lifted Ghana). The Ewes also have "Takpekpe le Anloga" (there is a gathering in Anloga) to mark a significant gathering of clan elders in Anloga.
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.
An effort by Dutch factories in the colonial times to undercut local textile production in Indonesia by producing and supplying machine made imitations of Javanese batik, back fired and was rejected but became an instant hit in Dutch Trading posts in Ghana when they were introduced here. This fabric type gained ground rapidly in Ghana as one of the many foreign imports.
Designs began to be adapted to fit local tastes and concerns in Ghana and West Africa in general. Specific motifs of traditional import became evident in the designs introduced.
Various direct printing technologies were introduced to produce cheaper imitations of wax prints (fancy prints). These can be differentiated from the Wax prints because the designs only register on one surface of the fabric but has the advantage of finer detail of design and direct reproduction of photographs.
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
It is not uncommon to identify European clothing in Ghana which is associated with the loss of Ghanaian culture. In fact, it is worthy to note that most of the widely available cloth on the Ghanaian market identified as Ghanaian may have been produced in Europe or the Far East.
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 is the dominant colour of clothing for funerals. Sometimes in combination with red for close relatives. Red is the preferred colour for deaths of a violent nature, like accidents, suicides, gunshot deaths or young deaths.
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
Ghanaian contemporary visual practices have drawn upon the extant (or vast) vibrant and flourishing textile traditions especially the Kente cloth and Adinkra. Ashanti and Ewe Kente, Adinkra and Ghanaian factory produced fancy prints have served as inspiration for contemporary Ghanaian Artists over time. One cannot ignore a reflection of the "rhythm based aesthetics" of the Kente and Adinkra patternation in the works of many Ghanaian contemporary artists. Textiles have also become a direct medium of expression in recent times for Ghanaian artist for sculpture and as support for painting. Artists like Dorothy Amenuke have created sculpture from pieces of fabrics collected from around fashion shops.
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.
In conclusion, I will like to draw attention to the current situation in the textile sector which has seen a decline since the 1990s.
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.
Textiles in Ghana, Open learn Open University
Kofi Antuban, Ghana’s Heritage of Culture, 1963
Duncan Clarke, The art of African Textiles
Ahiagble Bob Dennis, The pride of Ewe Kente, 2004
Greay Art Gallery, New York University, The poetics of Cloth: African Textiles/ Recent Art, 2008
Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard, African Majesty: The textile art of the Ashanti and Ewe.