Have you ever wished others could read your mind? If you dream long enough, and you live in West Africa, you just might be able to make it happen. Your clothes could announce your religion, political affiliation, or just about anything else, for you.
Most of us communicate with our clothing. We may not think about it when we get dressed in the morning, but the clothing we wear tells others something about the type of work we do, how affluent we are, and whether we are conservative or creative.
In West Africa, however, cloth has been both a sign of wealth and a form of communication, for as long as anyone can remember. Even formal clothes can send strong and overt messages. In this region, cloth is used to convey solidarity, preferences, social status, mood, and, even, political or religious views.
Talking cloth is a time-honored tradition in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where adinkra and kente are both vibrantly expressive. Each of these fabrics has its own unique language of motif and color. Its patterns often represent ancient proverbs or provide commentary on important events.
Those who still remember the language of the cloth can read a litany into its colorful and elegant geometric designs. However, as more West Africans migrate from villages to cities, and inter-marry across tribal lines, fewer young people are learning to “read” traditional cloth.
This unfortunate reality does not herald the death of talking cloth. Far from it. Most West Africans still have a deep reverence for the value and artistry of traditional cloths. It is not unusual for a family to pull cherished, heirloom pagnes or kentes out of the closet for special occasions.
Nonetheless, colorful, inexpensive, factory-produced wax prints have long been the medium of choice for day to day expression. It is not unusual to have a new range of wax print pagnes launched for International Women’s Day, Abissa, or even to support one’s favorite candidate in an upcoming election. There is a pagne for just about any opinion you can think of, from a love for Zouglou music, to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
“Modern” pagnes frequently have writing in French or English to overtly express the cloth’s meaning. However, the most commonly recognized traditional motifs and color significance are still maintained and respected. So, even in West Africa, the more things change, the more they stay the same… Telepathic fabric is alive and well and will inevitably be shared, in its new form, with the next generation.
Many thanks to artist, Lisa Kerpoe, who generously allowed us to display her beautiful “Motherhood” adinkra in this post. Ms. Kerpoe is based in San Antonio, Texas and creates paintings on cloth using water-based and mixed media techniques. She facilitates workshops throughout the United States and is an adjunct faculty member at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas. To learn more about Ms. Kerpoe’s work, please visit her website at: http://www.lisakerpoe.com/.