Art by Juan Carlos Chan Verdejo
July 6, 2020
On all corners of the continent, textile and craft industries are deeply rooted in ancestral heritage and tradition. Expert artisanal skills have been passed down generationally within communities, and many age-old techniques are still in practice today.
Each African nation boasts an illustrious showcase of its master artisans; their work is considered to be a performance art and spectator’s sport, practiced under the gaze of local onlookers, and designs contain precious symbols and motifs which denote spiritual and social beliefs. From the ancient hand-weaving techniques of Nigeria’s Yoruba and Igbo people, to the East African Maasai’s colorful beading practices, and more—this is our beginner’s guide to the exquisite crafts of artisans across the continent.
Akwete cloth is a vibrant, hand-woven textile, with ancient Igbo origins. Originating in Nigeria’s Abia State, Akwete was originally known as “Akwa Miri,” which translates as “cloth of the water,” and is reported to be as old as the Igbo nation itself. This weaving technique is practiced solely by female artisans. The community maintains the belief that their skill is a divine gift that they are born with; a gift exclusive to the Akwete people.
The cloth is meticulously spun on a wide, vertical loom using raw materials ranging from wool, cotton and silk, to raffia and hemp. While coarser materials were used as part of the indigenous group’s traditional masquerades and as headpieces for its warriors, materials such as hemp were used to weave towels and handbags, and cotton was spun for everyday clothing due to its light and airy nature. Each cloth can take weeks to craft, depending on the complexity of its design.
The hand-loomed Aso-Oke cloth is the luxurious traditional wear of the Yoruba people from southwest Nigeria, worn mainly for ceremonial occasions such as chieftaincy coronations, weddings, and name day celebrations. The name of the fabric translates to “top cloth.” It is traditionally donned by men in the form of a three-piece outfit, known as an Agbada, while women wear it in the forms of head ties, blouses and sarongs. To the Yoruba, the cloth represents prestige due to the widespread understanding of the labor-intensive and costly process that goes into producing it.
Historically, Aso-Oke was woven from cotton, imported silk called Alaari, and a domestic wild raw silk known as Sanyan; which required thousands of moth cocoons to be collected and unravelled and then spun into thread. There are three main types of traditional Aso-Oke, distinguishable by their colors: Alaari is red, Etu is dark blue, and Sanyan is brown. The fabric is often kept as a family heirloom and passed down to younger generations within Yoruba families.
Akwa-Ocha is native to the indigenous Anioma people of Nigeria’s Delta State. The fabric has evolved over time, and traditionally is worn for ceremonial occasions, particularly weddings. Intricately crafted from locally harvested cotton, the fabric, the name of which translates to its literal meaning “white cloth,” has historically been a scrupulous collaboration between Anioma men and women.
Men harvest the locally cultivated cotton, while the female community hand-spins it on the loom, resulting in luxurious cloths in ivory shades. Some Akwa-Ocha cloths are embellished with symbols and motifs: plants and animals appear frequently, in addition to symbols of the cosmos, which reflects the varying regions’ spiritual and social beliefs. Today, the prestigious attire is solely produced in the Delta State, and provides a livelihood for the Anioma community.
Although the technique of batiking can be traced to Ancient Egypt, the official origins of the globally popular hand-dyeing practice is disputed. For centuries, batiks were as ubiquitous as gold, and today they are cherished throughout West Africa. Artisans paint or stamp hot wax onto a fabric as a dye repellant, blocking out areas with exuberant shapes and patterns, ranging from the abstract to the more literal. Each batik is entirely hand-crafted, and typically convey personal meanings and stories: prints and patterns can reflect anything from social and marital statuses, to religious beliefs. Today, Ghana boasts Africa’s most established batiking manufacturers. Many batik makers are women, who pass the art skill down to each new generation of young women.
The Maasai people of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya adhere to a uniquely traditional way of living. For centuries, Maasai tribes relied on pastoralism as their sole source of income; however, when droughts began to affect the rural land, the communities turned to their female population to capitalize on their culture’s most prominent decorative traditions: beadwork.
Beading has been practiced by female Maasai artisans since before colonial rule. The beads generally signify beauty, but they also embody the Maasai culture as a whole, representing strength, tradition, and social status. The brightly colored beads have varying symbolism: red typically depicts strength, green stands for the earth, and orange signifies hospitality. Each Maasai beaded creation is intricately hand-crafted, using ancient patterns.
Skills continue to be passed down to the youngest female Maasai members by their mothers and grandmothers, and today, the practice is the tribe’s most profitable source of income.
The Yoruba word, “adire” means “tied and dyed.” The everyday fabric is produced by Nigeria’s Yoruba people using a range of resist-dyeing processes. As a textile technique, Adire initially emerged in the city of Abeokuta in the nineteenth century. Historically, locally woven cloth called Teru was tied to produce simple patterns with indigo dye found in local elu leaves. The designs became more complex when, at the turn of the twentieth century, imported materials from Europe meant that Yoruba women could experiment with new and distinctive patterns using stencils and natural tools, such feathers and seeds. Traditionally, each cloth was discernible by its pattern, and communicated the tribe the wearer of the garment belonged to.
Named by UNESCO as one of the world’s most ancient crafts, Backcloth is the sacred fabric of the Baganda people of Southern Uganda. Barkcloth is made by harvesting the inner bark of the native Mutuba tree during the country’s wet season. The fibrous substance is then heated with fire or water, stretched to soften, and then beaten with wooden mallets to form a fabric with a distinctively smooth texture. Each year, the bark of the tree regenerates and can be re-harvested by the tribe. As the fabric lays out to dry, it transforms into a reddish-brown color. The cloth is
Traditionally, barkcloth is a celebratory fabric, customarily worn in the toga-like style by tribal royalty and chiefs. Barkcloth dyed black or white signifies superiority in status. Although an ancient material, in recent years, barkcloth has attracted the interest of local fashion designers due to its durable nature, and is regarded as a more sustainable alternative to leather.