Sunday, July 17, 2011

Inspiration from African Kuba Cloth or "organic geometry"

After my last post, and in contemplating how to combine "geometric" pattern, line, circles, squares, etc. in an more organic and less hard edged way in my painting, I came upon a Tumblr image that was described as "Ceremonial Cuban cloth) . . .

Image from Tumblr and it's link here.

This started a contemplative "journey" in my mind's eye, as to how to incorporate what I call "organic geometry" into some kind of abstract compositions on my painting surfaces.

Many, many years ago (I won't say how long ago!), I saw a piece of what was described to me as "bark cloth", which had been brought back with a couple from their trip to Australia. I think that was probably the first time I had ever seen anything like that. It was very large and the texture was wonderful and the designs were amazing. I never forgot it.

When I started seeing examples of a type of these designs on Tumblr from the Hamill Gallery in Boston, I learned that it is called "Kuba." Here are a few more examples from the Hamill Gallery, and in their description, they use the words repetition and rythym.

My very favorites are the patterns and repetitions in black and tan . . .

It wasn't until I decided to do this blog post, that I found out a little more about
the story behind the making of these beautiful designs, which I found on this African imports site. This link to this page on their site has a youtube video (that I don't know how to post here . . still learning) about the meaning of the cloth, which I find amazing . . .
The Meaning of Kuba Cloth
 African Kuba cloth is just starting to become popular in the United States. Using the leaf of the raffia tree, the Kuba people of the Congo first hand cut, and then weave the strips of leaf to make pieces of fabric, often called raffia cloth. There are several different sub groups of the Kuba people. Each group has different and unique ways to make the fabric. Some make it thicker, longer, shorter, or with different patches. Each patch is symbolic and many times a piece has many different meanings. When Kuba cloth originated there were probably no patches used, but as the cloth is brittle it is quite likely that the patches were used to repair the frequent tears. Later each patch developed a meaning, many patterns are uniquely arranged to tell a story. 

      TheMaking of Kuba Cloth
The process of making Kuba cloth is extremely time consuming and may take several days to form a simple placemat size piece. The men first gather the leaves of the raffia tree and then dye it using mud, indigo, or substances from the camwood tree. They then rub the raffia fibers in their hands to soften it and make it easier for weaving. After they've completed the base cloth the women embroider it. They do this by pulling a few threads of the raffia fibers, inserting them into a needle running the needle through the cloth until the fibers show up on the opposite end. They then take a knife and cut off the top of the fibers, leaving only a little bit showing. Doing this hundreds of times forms a design. The designs are seldom planned out ahead of time, and most of the embroidery is done by memory. 
The Kuba people, who developed this and many other fabrics were very resistant to using European cloth; and for many years seldom used machine made fabrics. When researching this and other cloths that the Kuba people developed, it is not hard to understand why they resisted the change so much. Each fabric, each pattern, and each design in traditional Kuba fabrics has great meaning. On the basis of what a person wore; you could interpret much about them. Social status age, marital status, and a person's character were just a few of the things a piece of cloth symbolized to these people. 

When I found this painting, by Kelly Marzycki, on her blog "Aesthetic Work", which, to me, reminds me of, or has the "flavor" of, Kuba cloth . . . well . . .viewing this piece was the synchronicity that drew me toward an inner reflection process that I write about here, how much I loved the organic nature of Kuba cloth . . organic yet with structure. Her painting is less structured yet still has that feel.

Kelly Maszycki, The Earth Forgets Nothing
(Acrylic on nujabi paper)
Now I know that the patching results in the combination of seemingly dissimilar patterns, which I love visually (reminds me of Asian boro cloth), yet it also has symbolic meaning. The following are images of kuba inspired patterns in my living room. I also love zebra patterns, although that may come from liking a black/white palette, but the pattern is also organic.

A wall hanging in my living room

Pillow from Ikea on my couch

This cloth covers my piano

Another pillow from Ikea . . although not organic, I like the repetition

Not Kuba . . but here's the circle!

Detail of my living room rug (wool not zebra!)

This juxtoposition of pattern, rythym, repetition, grids, yet so organic fascinates me. I don't know at this point, where this all will take me in my painting, but I wanted to share with you what is feeling very exciting to me. All of you don't know my "story", but there is a whole lot that has "percolated" within me thoughout my life, that I am discovering, and it seems to be, at one time . . erupting . . at another time . . a quiet blooming . . . and . . rather late in life. It has been feeling lately very rich and deep, and I'm having thoughts that all this may be fodder for a book. Ha!!! . . who knows! After all . . . one never really knows what tomorrow will bring, as long as one keeps moving and doing . . and paying attention . . not remaining rigid and opening to new possibilities . . and, I believe, the Universe does the rest.


  1. What beauty you surround yourself with Jann. I agree, that organic geometric combination is very appealing and visually strong.

  2. An inspiring post. Your place is beautiful with the various strong patterns - and the overall effect is one of unity not chaos.

    The Kuba cloth is wonderful (and new to me). I also agree about organic geometric patterns and that they are particularly appealing in black and tan. Lovely! I'm going to be on the lookout for more images of them - thanks for the introduction!

  3. Lovely post Jann. Kuba is one of my passions too.

    The Earth Forgets Nothing really appeals to me and the title is very fitting. It seems to be quite different from Kelly's other work.

  4. bonjour Jann, il n'y a pas d'heure, pas de lieu pour apprendre et appréhender le monde, les coups du coeur viennent avec la foudre des sentiments ou des ressentiments accumulés, en français on dit:" coup de foudre" quand on tombe amoureux", il en est de même pour la peinture, d'où provient le mystère de l'art. Vraiment votre démarche empreinte de curiosité est exemplaire et agréable: si
    j'avais enseigné, j'eusse aimer vous avoir comme élève. Amicalement.

  5. Jann -- Amazing post that truly pays tribute to Kuba cloth and its variations -- love the cloth on your piano! Thank you again for the referral to my work!

  6. what a beautiful home you have created. these cloths are wonderful and rich. goodness, the work that goes into creating the Kuba cloth. amazing. i saw some similar cloths or maybe actual Kuba cloths last year. a woman was selling them here. they were african cloths at any rate. very expensive but i would have loved to have some.

  7. Jann this is kind of a dumb comment but; you and your art and your decor all seems so sophisticated to me!!! Elegant and sometimes cerebral but with that mix of earthy. I find you and the art and decor so fascinating!!!

  8. Patterns, repetition, and simple palette ... all make for a very interesting design. LOve the educational post... and your images.

  9. Hi Leslie & Robyn . . Thank you, and I'M so thankful I found your Tumblrs and blogs . . they've been such a rich and wonderful visual education for me.

    Hi Lynn . . Thank you so much for your visit and comment.

    Salut Thige. . Merci de votre visite. . vos commentaires sont si fascinants. Meilleur pour vous.

    Hi Kelly . . you are most welcome . . my pleasure.

    Hi there, Suki . . always nice to see your visit. I would LOVE to have some originals. I can only afford the knock-offs! Thank you for the compliment . . although when my son was young, he used to show his friends what he called my "weird stuff" . . turtle shells, horns, fence caps,
    spheres, etc., etc. The black & white patterns I chose about 4 yrs ago goes with all my "weird" stuff!

    Hi Jo . . Thank you for visiting . . I don't know how this will all percolate to my work . . if I could I would love to visit Africa.

  10. Repetition, rhythm, and IKEA! Enjoyed reading this.

  11. tantalising for the eyes and mind, Jann. I'll have to re-read to absorb all the information. I'm so with you on many levels in this post and can almost feel your excitement!

  12. I love the way you do this in depth research in preparation for work. And my favourite are the first set of ikea pillows. I do love repetition.

    I remember many years ago bringing home "tapas" I think they were called from New Zealand done by Maori artists, very reminiscent of some of the pieces you show.

    I can't wait to see what comes out of you after absorbing all this wonderful inspiration and ground work.

  13. Hi JG - I think you are onto something with this additional inspiration; and Kelly's work is in a sense close to yours - please keep going with this current work - it has a great feel to it and it is yours whether it reflects something else or not. B

  14. Thank you Jann for all your research and this wonderful post :) Very interesting and inspiring .... I am very curious how your next work will be !!!

  15. Hello Laura: Thanks for stopping by.

    Hi Kim . . Thank you! My passion for art keeps growing!

    Hi ZenDot . . I've started an encaustic collage with black and tan. We'll see .. . . . :-) Leaving tomorrow for New England to see son and grandchildren.
    I meant to leave a message on you blog, but have been busy!

    Hi Barry . . The internet has been wonderful in helping me narrow down my eye. Going from faces & figures to non-representational at first felt a little daunting, but I'm finding my "niche."

    Hi Michelle . . Glad you enjoyed the post. I'm also curious as to how my next FINISHED (many in process) will look like.

  16. I was wandering around distractedly in cyber space, resting from an overly ambitious cleaning project and I happened across you. I have been furiously reading backwards through your blog and I love your posts and your work. Glad I arrived here and adding you to my reader as I know I will want to return. Thanks for sharing your process and insight.

  17. Hi dryadart . . was out of town for a while. Thank you for your comment and visit!

  18. Wonderful post, I've never heard of Kuba cloth before, and your research is so interesting and thorough. I love African fabrics anyway - even from Ikea!...

  19. Hi Sue . . thank you for commenting and following!

  20. I enjoy that painting, captures the organic flair you're talking about. Looking forward to more.

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