Arts and Culture
When the Portuguese entered the mouth of the Kongo river around 1483, they were met by local peoples who eventually guided them to the up-river capital of the local polity at Mbanza Kongo (São Salvador). There the Portuguese encountered a well-organized and prosperous city-state, one of several autonomous, but related pre-colonial states in central Africa.
Dispersed among many European institutions are approximately sixty raffia fabrics with pile patterns that can be securely dated to Kongo state at the end of the 17th or beginning of the early 18th centuries according to inventory records. 14C dating has suggested at least one of these pieces dates to the 14th century. All are examples of local production created during the early centuries of European-Kongo contact, and made of the same materials and techniques: raffia fibers, of limited length, likely woven on a single-heddle loom with pattern added by a supplementary weft technique. Larger display cloths were created by joining individual panels together.
This talk will show that while the interlocking patterns on these Kongo cloths are similar to the well-known Kuba textiles from the up-river Kasai region, a comparison of these two types of raffia cloth reveal critical differences in the patterning technique: supplementary weft with cut pile vs. embroidery with cut-pile patterning. Examination of unfinished examples from both regions reveal similar steps in loom set-up and weaving habits, with the essential difference in the method of creating pattern: supplementary weft vs. embroidery.