You can't look at Kuba cloth for long without blowing your mind. The patterns dance. The patterns defy you to make sense of them. When Jim collected them, he assumed the makers were under the influence, but I don't think that is the case. In the Kuba Kingdom of yesteryear, beauty is all about geometry.
The Kingdom, deep in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, wasn't discovered by the West till an African-American missionary arrived in 1890, so their arts didn't migrate to the Americas with the slave trade. But their textiles have characteristics common to the music that transpired into jazz, blues, reggae, samba, and the like. Thompson lists them:
Among those principles are the dominance of a percussive performance style (attack and vital aliveness in sound and motion); a propensity for multiple meter (competing meters sounding all at once); overlapping call and response in singing (solo/chorus, voice/instrument [...]; inner pulse control (a "metronome sense," keeping a beat indelibly in mind as a common denominator in a welter of different meters); suspended accentuation patterning (offbeat phrasing of melodic and choreographic accents)...
Expect the unexpected. Above all, improvise.
In the classic Kuba village, men weave squares of cloth from the raffia palm leaves. Then women embroider the pattern, cutting their raffia threads as they go along to create a velvet surface. Without prior sketching, they work from a mental catalog of linear motifs, innovating as they go. No two cloths can be alike. The more original the design, the higher is the status of the artist.
According to John Mack, the eyes of the Kuba people are so attuned to geometry that, when the first photographs were introduced to them, they could not grasp the overall picture out of the interplay of surface pattern they perceived.
Early visitors to the Kuba capital brought a motor bike to impress the residents. When the bike roared past the King, the crowds ignored the vehicle but rushed in to examine the pattern made by the tire treads and the King ordered them to be copied for use in their design work.
And so, like jazz, the embroideries are are offbeat, surprising, and tickle your senses.
[In 2009, I tried to recreate Kuba patterns during some meditation sessions. Here is the link to that earlier exploration.]
Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson.
"In Search of the Abstract" by John Mack (Hali: International Magazine of Antiques, Carpets, and Textiles (Lond), 8(3), No. 31, pp 26-33, Jul-Sept 1986)
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