I sat in a trance, hypnotized by the weaver’s rhythmic flow. Back, forth, back forth, as he deftly zipped the filling carrier of the loom between the most delicate, but richly colored silk threads. Ato Kwamina, known as the finest Kente weaver in Bonwire — the village in Ghana’s Ashanti region from whence the most recognized kente patterns originate — was weaving a cloth for the Ashanti King. Kente, the often-variegated, hand-loomed tapestry attributed to the Asante ethnic group of present-day Ghana, is arguably one of the most easily identifiable of textiles. It is also a fabric with an undeniable global footprint, reaching as far as the Haute-Couture catwalks of Paris as used by Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi, the first African designer to be admitted as a guest member of prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. “Amongst the African textile heritage, obviously kente is a very interesting textile, because of its aesthetics, its history, and also because it is still living and it is still possible to find good artisans with the skills to create new kente, [which]is not the case with other traditional textiles,” says Ayissi.
Kente in Current Conversation
Two weeks ago, stoles of traditional Kente were worn by some members of the US Democratic Party (the stoles had been presented to them by the government of Ghana when certain Democratic members of congress visited Ghana along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2019), at the suggestion of the Congressional Black Caucus, in an apparent move to optically demonstrate solidarity with Black America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police and given the ensuing racial reckoning the United States in enduring at the moment. This act brought Kente and its meaning, along with controversy surrounding its use, to the forefront of many conversations.
Oboshie Sai Cofie—a former Minister for Tourism and Diasporan Relations of Ghana—states, “One of the more rewarding moments for me, of the trending global fight against [anti-black] discrimination, was seeing some of the United States of America's Congress wearing stoles of Ghana's Kente cloth. Our rich fabric, infused with deep and glorious meanings, carried our name, Ghana, into homes and onto lips all over our world.” Conversely, Milan-based Ghanaian designer, and one of Untamed Empire’s partners in growing the creative industry, Nana K. Brenu of Design Company “NATIV”, called the gesture “fake solidarity,” adding, “It was a lame photo op. Same as Trump holding up the Bible.” African-American writer Doreen St. Felix, in a story for the New Yorker, wrote that “...the sight of the mantles literally dragging on the floor—as members of Congress stood up after kneeling for eight minutes and forty-six seconds...felt not just misguided but like an outright mockery.” Meanwhile, African-American Art Historian and Fulbright scholar, Daniel Dunson, feels, “Acknowledging our cultural connections to our African ancestry is imperative, however I wish it was done publicly before a moment like this”. Public opinion on the use of Kente members of U.S. Congress is ostensibly divided. In order to parse the use of Kente on that occasion, one must first understand the history and symbolism of the textile.
Photo: Instagram, via @newyorkermag
Myth, Mystery and History: The Origin of Kente
Kente is a royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance as it signifies wealth and celebration. The stoles worn by the Democrats are, technically, unfinished products. Those narrow strips — now ubiquitously worn during graduation ceremonies the world over and often given as gifts — are traditionally sewn together to form a large piece of weighty cloth, one which is expensive due to its historic significance and time-consuming production. Kente cloth, when worn traditionally by men, is thrown over one shoulder and draped, in a manner not-unlike Grecian togas, while women sew the cloth into full length outfits.
A fabulous legend of the origin of Kente has it that around 300 years ago in Ghana’s Ashanti Region, in Ato Kwamina’s village of Bonwire, two brothers, during a hunt, watched a spider spinning a web. From the spider’s work, they were inspired to weave the first kente cloth out of the black and white fibres of the rafia tree and proffered their creation to the Asantehene, their king, who ventured that the cloth might be improved by making it more colorful. And so, they say, was born the idea to dye the fibres red, yellow and green. This myth has, however, been debunked.
The Ewe ethnic group of Eastern Ghana claim that they are the true originators of the kente pattern, after having learnt the weaving technique from ancient Sudan. 'Ke' and 'te', are the words in the Ewe language for the main alternating rhythmic actions involved in the operation of the loom. In the weaving process you open (“ke”) the weft then pass and pull (“te”) the waft through it and press. The resulting Ewe name “Kete” was corrupted to “Kente”, a modified material, in which each color and pattern have symbolic meaning, made by the Ashantis in the village of Bonwire. Ashanti traders and emissaries learnt the technique, and now produce the most globally recognized patterns.
In support of the Ewe origin theory, Dr. Anthony Dotse, states in a story for Modern Ghana, “One of the oldest known Kete or Kente cloths can be seen at UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History in California. It came from the Ewes” He adds that “The Smithsonian museum confirmed that the oldest Kete cloth is that which was made by Ewes as a royal cloth for a king and dates back to the 1500s or so.” The Smithsonian Institute has also traced the origin of Kete to Agortime, in Ghana’s Volta Region from whence Ewes hail, and invited some weavers from Agortime to the institute when Kete was being celebrated by the Smithsonian.
Kente and Pan-Africanism
Given its history, it is clear that Kente is more than just a fabric. The Democrats who donned the stoles presumably possess an awareness of its importance given their visit to Ghana. One might suggest that easily identifiable, Ghanaian Kente was chosen by the Democrats because it is the most iconic fabric from the African continent, just as the tartan is recognized as Scottish. While kente has come to symbolize "Africa" in general, true Kente is indeed only made in Ghana and specific to the country. Writer and creative consultant Natasha Nyanin posits that, “some might argue that associating Kente specifically with Africa in general is emblematic of the lazy manner in which the West paints Africa as a monolith.” “But why has kente specifically become an international oriflamme for the continent?” she asks.
I believe Kente’s symbolism as African in general has everything to do with the Pan-African struggle. I say this because my family have been part of that struggle. My great-grandfather, Paa Grant, started the United Gold Coast Convention, the political party that began the journey towards Ghana becoming the first sub-saharan African country to gain independence. He personally paid for Ghana’s first (then soon-to-be) president Kwame Nkrumah to return to The Gold Coast (as Ghana was formerly known) from England to lead us in the negotiation toward independence from British colonial rule. Ghana became the first independent African state on 6th March 1957, and Kwame Nkrumah is famed for saying on that day that “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.”
As a bastion of the Pan-African spirit, Ghana invited and hosted many an African-American and diasporian great, from Malcolm X, to Maya Angelou, from Nina Simone and Marcus Garvey, to Rita Marley, and several others, who took the story of Ghana across the world. Thus, Ghana and its iconography became de facto symbols for all Afro descendants and Kente’s 21st century availability-for-all doesn’t diminish its undeniable status as a symbol of nobility, cultural erudition and social prestige in Ghana. It is a beautiful, rich and complex fabric.
“But why has kente specifically become an international oriflamme for the continent?”
Photo via Smithsonian Institution
Myth, Mystery and History: The Origin of Kente
I will never forget the day when exploring Guangzhou, China, I stumbled upon “The Africa Market”, and nearly fainted when I went in and realized that this was a vast, nine-storey building of African cultural products manufactured in China. There were wooden masks, leather bags, mud-cloth, and of course, in one shop, the ‘Shanghai Kente Weaving Company”, all types of Kente. Africa herself is awash with cheaply made, lower quality replicas imported from China, where Kente patterns are printed onto fabric like logos, instead of being woven by masters. Ghanaian textile industry leaders are not happy with the unfolding kente piracy, which in many cases finds fake Kente being smuggled into Ghana herself. Local officials have been known to raid local markets to collect counterfeit kente garments, which are burned on the spot. Imane Ayissi agrees: “it is sad to see the apparition of industrial fake kente, because that means the destruction of the heritage and the destruction of artisanal skills.”
The fake Kente situation is more alarming in the U.S., particularly among Afrocentric communities, where some individuals simply do not know the difference between real, woven, and fake, printed Kente. If respect is a tenet of Afrocentrism, counterfeit Kente of Chinese origin does not belong in this community. Ayissi, for example, shows such respect by collaborating with Ewe Kente artisans in Ghana. According to his team, “The choice of the colors and the kind of kente... is decided by Imane [based on] the theme, the mood, and the color range of the collection, but there is also a space for the artisan to translate and to interpret Imane’s instructions and add their own creativity.”
Many fashionable Diasporan women love kente and are willing to pay top dollar for it, but only if it is the real deal, made in Ghana. It is up to local, Ghanaian “Kentepreneurs” to commercialize, market and supply enough consistent Kente overseas to meet the demand. This is why creative industries incubator Untamed Empire seeks to catalyze business growth for creative and cultural entrepreneurs in Ghana through training, networking & marketing.
Can Kente be Patented?
Kente is already protected as “folklore” under Ghana’s Copyright Act 2005 which offers the protection of “traditional cultural expressions” and “traditional knowledge” within the IP realm. But there are questions around suitability and enforcement. “I think it might be difficult to make [Kente] really patented [as with] all the creative products that need freedom and interpretation,” says Ayissi, “but it should be protected at least by labels or cultural protections, by the Unesco or other ONG (NGOs).”
Recently many attempts have been made by Ghana to protect its Kente IP. The country’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture sought to sue the producers of the film Black Panther, which draws inspiration from a spectrum of African heritage and even won an Academy Award for Costume Design. The head of the National Folklore Board claimed that “anyone who intends to use folklore for any purpose, other than as permitted under section 19 of this Act, is required to apply to the Board for permission in the prescribed form and the person shall pay a fee that the Board may determine.”
“ I am so passionate, and was part of the team who drafted the national IP policy,” says Ghanaian lawyer Sophia Amissah Laryea. There are many examples of IP victories. On January 25, 2013, the Paris District Court ruled in favor of Burberry, which won the right to be the sole user of its famous tartan. Luxury shoe brand, Christian Louboutin also gained trademark status for its famous red soles in a decision by Paris’s high court in May of 2018. Laryea continues, "IP protection involves both the government and individuals. The question of the protection of the kente cloth in my opinion is multi-faceted and includes the (cultural) origin and designs. [But] today people are able to commission weavers to produce specific designs and colours in kente, [so] the question where do these designs fall in IP Rights?”
Samuel Baddoo, Ghanaian IP lawyer and co-founder of Swiftlaw, is of the opinion the measure that would be adequate to protect Kente is something known as “Geographic Indication.” He says, “With Champagne, for example, there is a committee in France, called Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne and they are a body that regulates the production of champagne...If you are not part of that club, anything you produce cannot be called Champagne...same with Cognac, same with Scotch whiskey. In Africa we have [examples] like rooibos tea [which has] a geographical indication that it belongs to the people of the Western Cape of South Africa.” “So for Kente too,” he continues, “we can protect it based on kind of a regional geographic indication.” He continues, “What can happen is one region of Kente producers, [for instance] the Bonwire Kente producers, can come up with a name, call it the “Bonwire Kente”, ...and protect it under geographical indication so that that geographical indication will be owned by an association that represents that community in particular that is laying claim to that type of Kente.” Baddoo feels that while the law is in place for such action, many people do not know about it and it may not be at the top of the government’s agenda.
“It is sad to see the apparition of industrial fake kente, because that means the destruction of the heritage and the destruction of artisanal skills.”
The way forward
Fashion is an important part of our identity as Afro descendants, and with the increased global interest in varying iterations of our fashion and artisanry, there is a palpable cultural and economic opportunity to assert our identity in the global market. Luxury Ghanaian brands such as Duaba Serwah and Pistis, who use kente for their collections, and even international powerhouses suchs as Imane Ayissi, would benefit from such a move. Its popularity in the Afro diaspora shows that Kente, if protected and properly marketed, could enjoy the most powerful asset in all of today’s fashion world: a true and clear sense of history. Covid-19 has meant that the West is fragile and the world as we knew it has changed forever. Culturally, people are returning to basics. Africa and its diaspora could work together to ensure that the factors that now constitute vulnerabilities are transformed into assets for the benefit of all.