I recently submitted a paper for the journal Textile: Journal of Cloth and Culture, which will be coming out in the next special issue. I was selected to write on my time with the Ewe Kente Weavers of Ghana. Here is an excerpt:
Looking back at two wonderful summers spent in Ghana six years ago, I can appreciate the experience with a different kind of awe to the one I expressed at the time. Having since become more knowledgeable in regard to woven cloth, both as a researcher and a maker, it is interesting to reflect back in the context of this journal. As far as I could see, and can clearly remember, traditionally woven Kente cloth is without a doubt on the waving end of the “waving or drowning” scale, although one might need to scratch deeper than the surface to observe how this is manifesting itself, both locally and in global markets.
Before I highlight the cultural, physical and historical nuances of this special cloth, I would like to wholeheartedly celebrate it by commending the robustness it possesses in terms of changing just enough to keep up with the whims of human evolution, whilst maintaining the integrity and uniqueness of its very particular traditions and origins. In this respect, Kente cloth is very much waving with all its might, and I hope to flag in particular the Ewe tribe, with whom I studied while on holiday from my BA at Goldsmiths College, University of London. As an outsider to the Kente village of Agbozume, where I conducted most of my research the second year with my teacher and companion, Bob Dennis, I was an outsider in several ways, as besides my pale skin amongst the ebony tones of the Ghanaians, I was very much alone as a female figure (weaving is absolutely a male dominated craft, which I will elaborate on in due course). Despite this distinction, I was very much welcomed, and, in part due to my then basic training as a weaver, even respected, as my skills were very much demonstrable, if not as refined as the youngest of apprentices. I was nevertheless a keen student, and patiently wound bobbins for one of the head weavers on my first couple of days – a task normally reserved for 4-6 year-old boys, who of course sat at my feet and giggled at me as an “obruni” (white) woman who was amusingly not afraid to join in and prove myself from the bottom rung of the process.
The above said, there are some aspects of Kente that are drowning, but as this is part of its rebirth, perhaps it is necessary for progress to shed the old and irrelevant. For one, there is no proper local institution that celebrates and preserves its history. The National Museum in Accra is shabby at best, and one can visibly see the cloths suffering from the humidity, as there is no method in place to create the right conditions for preservation. Furthermore, so many cloths have left Ghana to reside in both private collections, as well as those of museums around the world, such as the British Museum, where I saw close to a hundred such cloths, most of which had sadly not been taken out of the archive in years.
As the old cloths are not seen to be of value locally, collectors and antique enthusiasts have easily taken many away, for very little money, directly from villages, when elders have passed away. The only thing that is valued is the “sesia” basket, which is something of a family heirloom in the form of a recipe book and is guarded vehemently. It takes the shape of a basket the size of my fist, with multiple strips of cloth about 5cm by 1cm stuffed inside, each one revealing enough of the fabric for it to be remade. In addition, although it has been attempted multiple times by a good friend and colleague of mine, the cloth has failed to be recognised by UNESCO as historically and culturally significant. This is a real shame, as it would have provided the status and pride required by the government to invest in its conservation. However, there is still plenty to celebrate, which is what I intend to share in this examination of the progress of this fine weaving tradition. What follows is my construction of the prose version of my Kente cloth construction, where I pull supplementary threads of observation and fix them onto the surface of the background weave that is my theoretical investigation of this marvellous phenomenon.