Is West Africa’s Cloth Telepathic?

Kente Cloth, Côte d'Ivoire, Abusua Ye Dom Pattern

This kente cloth is called “abusua ye dom”, which means “the extended family is a force.”

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.

Adinkra, Motherhood, Lisa Kerpoe

The symbols on this adinkra cloth entitled “Motherhood”, which was created by artist Lisa Kerpoe, represent patience, compassion, love, wisdom and protection.

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.

Grand Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire, Abissa 2012, Pagne

The pagne that was designed for this year’s Abissa celebrations in Grand Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire. Each individual had a unique outfit; but, the celebrations looked like a sea of this green fabric.

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/.

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11 responses to “Is West Africa’s Cloth Telepathic?

  1. Pingback: Is West Africa’s Cloth Telepathic? | Home Far Away From Home·

    • Isn’t it fun? I love seeing someone at an intersection with a “talking pagne”. It makes me feel like I already know them a bit, although we’ve never met!

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