Kasaï velvet

Raffia Pile Cloth

Raffia Pile Cloth, Central Africa, 1940-1950 (source)

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Raffia Pile Cloth, Central Africa, 1900-1930, (source)

Raffia Pile Cloth

Raffia Pile Cloth, Central Africa, c 1950 (source)

Rafia Pile Cloth

Rafia Pile Cloth, Central Africa, early 20th century (source)

Raffia, cut-pile embroidery

Rafia Pile Cloth, Central Africa, early 20th century (source)

I’m a big fan of ethnic crafts and textiles. Whenever I travel, I always seek out local art offerings at the markets and souvenir shops. There is so much variety in different regions and sub-cultures that it’s an endless source of inspiration. A couple years ago I discovered the Textile Museum of Canada here in Toronto. It’s a tiny gem of a museum that usually gets overlooked next to ROM and the AGO, but it’s actually my favourite place to indulge in cultural voyeurism without getting on a plane.

Last fall I went to their exhibit called Natural Resources, which showcased handmade artifacts from around the world using traditional techniques and natural materials. Amidst the many beautiful pieces, I was most struck by raffia cloth panels made by the Shoowa tribe of the Kuba people. Known as Kasaï velvet (Velours du Kasaï), these panels are intricately woven using raffia palm fibers, which are then clipped to create a tufted surface. The most striking thing about them though are the geometric designs — irregular, spontaneous, abrupt — they completely defy the respect for symmetry and balance found in many traditional crafts. With my generative art brain I automatically imagined as though they were put through some kind of glitch algorithm. In my experience, a manually random design is not easy to create and I commend Shoowa for doing it so well without any software!

See more examples here, here and here.

Too bad that this book is out of print but even a used copy might still be more affordable than an original panel.

 

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