Arte Bakuba – Raffias and Velvets, Afro Brasil Museum

The exhibition “Arte Bakuba – Raffias and Velvets”, explore the natural techniques used by communities in Africa to create beautiful textiles. The Afro Brasil Museum, an institution of the São Paulo State Department of Culture, reveals the beauty, symmetry, and diversity of patterns and decorative styles of Bakuba fabrics. The local tribes were known for creating different patterns on fabrics made from raffia extracted from palm trees from Africa and South America. In addition to the patterns , the “ Kasai velvet” embroidery was also made with the same fiber, but with quilted effect created by several layers connected by a raffia thread. These fabrics were used mainly for clothes and decoration and the court of Portugal even exported them.

Located in the present-day southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Ex-Zaire), the Kuba Kingdom was one of the main kingdoms in Central Africa, and its heyday dates from the mid-18th century. Recognized for their rich artistic production linked to the court, the Bakuba are admired for their fabrics, whose main raw material is raffia, a fiber produced from the huge leaves of a type of palm tree originating in Africa and South America. sheet makes it easy to transform your fibers into large fabrics.

The Kuba kingdom heyday in the 18th century, there was a rich artistic production linked to the court. Nobles, warriors and priests enjoyed raffia woven for days and even months. They were so valuable, some pieces were used as dowry.

For centuries the leaves of the raffia palm have been transformed into very fine fibers, woven into abstract patterns intricate by the men of the Bakuba people, located in present-day Congo. Those who are in São Paulo until December 7 can check some fabrics belonging to this tradition at the Arte Bakuba exhibition – raffias and velvets , at the Afro Brasil Museum .

While their men dedicated themselves to raffia, the women of the shoowa group developed an intricate embroidery technique, the so-called Kasai velvets. In the composition, the raffia fabric is used as a background while a very fine thread of the fiber creates a quilted effect.

The quality of the textile production caused the nomenclature ‘Ráfia Bakuba’ to be created by art researchers. The aesthetic result of this spinning, with its geometric and abstract motifs, served as an inspiration for many contemporary artists.

The production of fabrics among the Bakuba occurs through stages. The removal of leaves and the preparation of very fine fibers, which will serve as a basis for creating the fabric, bring together a reasonable number of people, men, women and children. The weaver’s own craft is an intricate technique. There is a complex relationship between the warp, weft and the order of spinning in the act of weaving. “The aesthetic result of this spinning with its geometric and abstract motifs served as an inspiration for many contemporary artists”, says Emanoel Araujo.

Among the forms of embroidery, the most notable are the so-called “Kasai velvets”. They are manufactured especially by a Bakuba group called Shoowa. This velvet is made from the fabric of the defibrillated raffia that is used as a background. “The effect of quilting on the inclusion of textile layers is obtained by using a very thin raffia thread, which passes under the canvas and appears at the top, where it is later cut with a small knife”, explains Emanoel Araujo.


The Bakuba’s textile spinning
The Bakuba’s artistic expression in the Southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo reflects its cultural values. Different aspects as the importance of monarch institution, the social stratification, the pride of warrior and sacerdotal group, as the belonging to initial groups and associations of exclusive power can be widely distinguished from the clothing, tapestry, and other sort of practical use of weaving. In Bakuba’s oral history it is told that the first king — Nyimi — to introduce weaving was Shamba Bolongongo (circa 1600). He was the 93º king of Bakuba people, who was known as a pacific and civilized sovereign to introduce in his reign other people technology, and also to value the arts.

Wraparound skirt
The main raw material for the Bakuba textiles is the raffia. Raffia is a kind of palm tree from Africa and South America. Its leaves, in the shape of elongated pins, are among the biggest in the world and, exactly because of that, they are extremely useful in the production of cloths. The extraction of leaves and the very thin fiber preparation that will be used as a base of the textile creation congregate a reasonable quantity of people — men, women, and children. After the manufacture of the textile cloth and the manually or by weaving machines transformation of the textile, it is possible to continue the ornamentation process followed by the several possible methods of embellishment.

The Techniques
Among the beautification methods used by the Bakuba, the main ones are universally known: application (bonding of superimposed materials); the embroidery (which is the act of weaving a spinning aiming at the formation of specific designs in the fabric already manufactured); tie-dye (technique of dyeing, which can be done before or after embroidery); and the least used, the Patchwork method (which is to create patterns from cuts and flaps by removing areas from the base of the fabric). The appropriate yarn for weaving should be quite thin, so they use sheets of very young palm trees, which are put in the sun to dry getting the yarns.

The yarn making process can be done in two ways: either by wrapping the sheet fibers one by one by hand, or by using a comb with a hook to defibrate them (which greatly facilitates the work).

There are many methods employed in the “relaxation” of these fibers. They are, for example, combed and scraped with a snail shell or other sharp tool until they can be smooth. Another usual procedure is to make the already woven part be submitted to a container with water, leaving it to soak. Then, after wrapping it in other fabrics to protect it, it is punched carefully with a wooden pestle.

This process converts rough fibers similar to dry weeds into soft, delicate, soft yarns, essential components in the appreciation of the Bakuba raffia art.

The embroidery by the Bakuba women
While the weaving work is reserved for men, the embroidery of the fabric fits the women. The woman is the leader in the work of embroidery: it is she who decides what the general patterns used and the colors will be, in addition to coordinating the production. Bakuba women have a relevant role in politics, often holding positions of leadership and priesthood. Even today, women artisans are in charge of producing elegant embroidered fabrics. Among the forms of embroidery, the most notable are the so-called “Kasai velvets”. They are specially made by a Bakuba group called Shoowa. This velvet is made from the fabric of the raffia defibrated, which is used as a back cloth.

The effect of quilting on the inclusion of textile layers is obtained by a very thin raffia thread, which passes underneath the canvas and appears at the top, where it is cut with a small knife. Traditionally, the Bakuba create their inks from natural materials. In addition to the natural color of raffia, the main colors used are yellow, red, black and white.

The Colors
Red is obtained from African sandalwood (wood cam), yellow comes from the brimstone tree, the black color is withdrawn from the mixture of puddle mud and vegetable sources, and finally white is taken from a mineral called kaolin.

The Patterns
The motifs are usually developed with a needle, and the composition follows the criterion of color parallelism, establishing and alternating the lighter and darker shades to enhance the shapes. This work is not only carried out by women, but in fact it was the women who created the “Kasai velvet”.

The Animals
Although the formal solution of these patterns is abstract, some researchers point to the natural inspiration of these geometric forms. Thus, natural forms such as the zigzagged scales of a mammal called pangolin, turtle hull shapes or designs called “bambi” (“antelope” in the bakuba language), among others, would be appreciated. In fact, there are over 200 types of traditional patterns (produced from triangles, hexagons, squares, chess and other compositions) that are passed down from generation to generation.

Social Hierarchy
One can also perceive an intimate relationship between the patterns developed in the fabrics and those presented in the Bakuba sculptures. In some cases, in addition to their own insignia, certain geometric forms appearing in fabrics and other forms of Bakuba art are unique to certain social positions. Historically, artistic conceptions generally reproduced in part the forms of scarification, which are scars embedded in the skin as “tattoos” that serve as distinctives of identity and hierarchy.

The Tapas of the Mbuti people
The Mbuti people constitute an ethnic group of hunter-gatherers of non-banta origin. They live in small groups of 10 to 80 individuals in the Great Lakes region and in the Ituri forest in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Comparatively, one of their genetic characteristics is the short stature (the adults reach about one and a half meters in height) and they are known, for that very reason, by the name of “pygmies”. However, this name derives from legends and was pejoratively imposed by Europeans. The term Pygmies (from the Greek pygmies) means “the measurement of the forearm” (one cubit). There is indeed in Homer’s Iliad Canto III an account of a people of little individuals who lived on the banks of the Nile in Egypt (or even India, according to some sources).

However, the so-called pygmies are in fact indigenous African people who have been hit by invasions with which they have genetically and culturally integrated themselves or from where they were expelled.

The Material
The Mbuti are excellent producers of the fibrous blanket that we call “tapa”. The word was originally used to designate an ornate fiber type produced from the weed of certain types of trees, and the Mbuti remove it from the fig tree.

How To
The technique of removing an inner layer of the stem of the tree is developed as follows: two horizontal cuts are made in the “skin” of the tree, then cut in vertical cuts. A piece of this binder is removed by subjecting it to a softening process.

Are given repeated blows (or “tapas”) on the blanket with ivory or wood hammers; then the fibrous material is soaked in water, repeating the process as many times as necessary to obtain not only the malleability as well as the correct thickness of the blanket.

The result of this practice is a fluffy, soft and multi-purpose fibrous blanket. The final “fabric” is ornamented by means of monochromatic stamping with intricate geometric designs that resemble the traces of engravings.

The process of producing the dye that will define the designs printed on the lid is developed by means of natural and organic sources. The paint is produced from the blend of charcoal milled with fruit juice. Already the artistic motifs are outlined on the blanket with the finger or with a small smooth rod, specially manufactured for that purpose. From a strictly aesthetic point of view, we can say that, basically, the traits are abstract and the artists Mbuti use compositions that alternate organic and geometric forms, parallel lines, zigzag, and many other forms.

Afro Brasil Museum
Museu Afro Brasil is a public institution, held by São Paulo State Secretariat for Culture and managed by Associação Museu Afro Brasil – Organização Social de Cultura (Museu Afro-Brasil Association – Social Organization for Culture)

It aims to be a contemporary museum where the black people can be recognized.

Over than 6,000 works highlight the importance of African people in the formation of Brazilian culture, heritage and identity as known nowadays. Also, it offers a celebration of the art and accomplishments of the Africans and Afro-Brazilians.

The Collection is considered the largest Afro – American in American with more than 6,000 masterpieces, sculptures, documents, engravings, ceramics, paintings, contemporary arts, jewelry, objects, reliefs, photographs and textiles.

Over than 70% of the collection is in the long term exhibition, portraying mainly Brazil, some countries from the African Continent, Cuba, Haiti and the United States.