Kuba panel, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Raffia palm fiber, pigments

22 5/6 x 25 1/5 in. (58 x 64 cm)


About this object

The Kuba kingdom emerged in the late16th century in the Kasai region of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and it still exists to this day. (For more complete information on the history of the Kuba, see 2021.6.4)

Art and design were a pervasive part of daily life in the kingdom. Great importance was placed on personal display and office holders and other elites sought to outshine each other in the beauty and originality of their personal objects, such as palm wine cups and boxes for the red camwood powder they rubbed on their skin. All of these objects, and even the scarifications on their bodies, were decorated with geometric designs similar to the ones on the raffia cloths.

According to John Mack, “Royalty was central to the development of all the arts that were distinctive of the Kuba, including the invention of pattern.” He describes an incident that occurred in the 1920s when an American missionary organized an event to show the king the wonders of Western technology. Mack wrote, “As the motorbike shot off down the thoroughfare it was enveloped in a cloud of dust. But the wonder of the watching court was not reserved for the disappearing testament to the power of engineering technology. Rather it was the pattern left by the motorbike tyres on the sandy street which proved the miracle. It was copied by royal sculptors and is now known by the name of the nyimi [the king] who witnessed its appearance.”

Raffia cloths, such as this one, were made of woven and dyed raffia palm fronds. The tasks required to create such a cloth were divided between men and women. Men cared for the palm trees and obtained fibers from the fronds and they wove the cloth. Both women and men dyed and embroidered the cloths, but only women could create designs through the technique of cut-pile embroidery. Monni Adams (1978) wrote that women would sit outside their houses, embroidering raffia cloth with geometric designs in beige, brown or black. She said that they obtained the “plush or cut-pile effect by threading tufts of fiber between the warp and weft and then cutting and brushing it."

The embroidered panels also had value as exchange items and were sometimes part of trade negotiations. At funerals, they were displayed to show the importance of the deceased person. Even today, raffia textiles are still seen as the most appropriate burial cloth.

This cloth is composed of the full range of colors used on the raffia cloths - black, brown and shades of gold. At its center is a lozenge with a white dot in the center. The two “hooks” that enclose the lozenge extend outward to the edge of the cloth, and become integral to the overall design that covers the cloth. The lozenge shape is repeated in an abbreviated series of lines on each side of the lozenge. According to Dorothy Washburn (1990), the alternating brown and gold lines that parallel the main shapes are especially valued by the Kuba whom she interviewed.

Researchers have tried to elicit names for the individual designs from Kuba men and women, but Mack dismisses most of these studies as short-sighted attempts to pin down a fact that does not correspond to the people’s own way of thinking. As he wrote, “The general point that emerges is that obliging people to name things also obliges them to see them in a particular way.”

Adams, Monni. “Kuba Embroidered Cloth.” African Arts , Nov., 1978, Vol. 12, No. 1 pp. 24-39+106-107.

Adams, Monni. Reviewed Work: Shoowa Design: “African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba by Georges Meurant.” African Arts , Nov., 1987, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Nov., 1987), pp. 14+17+19

Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Kingdoms of the Savanna: The Kuba Kingdom.” Metropolitan Museum (October 2003).

Glazer, Joanne. The Social and Political Implications of the Kuba Cloths from Zaire. MA dissertation, University of South Africa. Nov. 1996.

The Kuba Kingdom, youtube. Kingdom of the Bakuba! Congolese Pre-colonial Kingdoms Series Ep2.

Mack, John. “Making and Seeing: Matisse and the Understanding of Kuba Pattern.” The Journal of Art Historiography. Number 7, December 2012.

“Design Cloth, National Museum of African Art.” Smithsonian Institution.

“Double Prestige. Panel. Kuba Peoples.” Metropolitan Museum.

Washburn, Dorothy. “Style, Classification and Ethnicity: Design Categories on Bakuba Raffia Cloth.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society , 1990, New Series, Vol. 80, No. 3 (1990), pp. i-xi+1-157