Kuba Modernism: Weaving The Fabric of An Empire

A new exhibition of cloth weaves the story of one of Africa's most powerful kingdoms

Courtesy of The Baltimore Museum of Art

It's hard to believe that the story of an entire kingdom's rise and fall could be told through something as simple as cloth, but at the Baltimore Museum of Art's latest exhibition, the 16th-century Kuba Kingdom's tale – located in what would today be the Democratic Republic of Congo – is intricately woven between the strands of this historic and legendary textile.

Kuba Cloth

The Kuba Kingdom, found on the southern edge of the Congolese rainforest, was once one of the Africa's most powerful societies. At its peak, the civilisation was almost unsurpassed in wealth following years of domination in the international ivory and rubber trade. This influx of trade (and an increasingly opulent royal court) also built a wildly imaginative textile and craft community that tragically – just four generations later – would be lost, leaving behind it the extraordinary legacy of arts and crafts presented at the exhibit.

Kuba: Fabric of an Empire explores chronologically how this distinctive cloth — made of geometrically woven raffia palm fronds  — encapsulates the lavish style of the society. The oldest piece in the exhibition dates to the mid-1700s — a relatively simple oxblood red sheet, embroidered with small geometric shapes around its border. As the exhibition progresses, the designs become increasingly complex, developing to a level of abstraction that associate curator of African Art Kevin Tervala describes as a form of modernist abstraction' that – interestingly – the Kuba people developed independently, and evolved as their society did.

'The designs become bolder at moments when visualising power and visualising authority become more important,' Tervala says. 'As the economy changes and power erodes [because of Belgian colonial pressure], the pomp and circumstance gets boosted up. That's when you see Kuba elites really doubling down on pattern and visibility and boldness.' 

The exhibition runs at the Baltimore Museum of Art through till 24 February 2019.