Kuba Cloth is one of the more popular traditional African fabrics. It is still produced locally for traditional use, so can be obtained as new, but also as vintage cloth. The vintage cloth can be many decades old, is very sought after and in short supply. It’s this type of cloth that you will typically see in museums.
The Kuba have one of the largest textile repertoires in the whole of Africa using appliqué, embroidery, cut-pile and resist-dyeing techniques. Kuba people exclusively employ vegetable and mineral dyes: camwood for red, brimstone tree for yellow, mud, charcoal and various plants for black and brown, clay for white.
The Kuba (also called Bakuba) people based around the Kasai river in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo are recognized as some of Africa’s pre-eminent artists. They gave a tradition of manufacturing cloth woven from the split younger leaves of the raffia palm. To this day they have retained great skill in making raffia cloth, weaving dancing skirts, aprons and mats on a loom set at an angle of 45 degrees to the ground. The weaver sits in its shade and works with his hands above the head. The Kuba raffia looms can only be used for raffia and not for cotton or other yarn.
The making of Kuba Cloth or raffia cloth is a very time consuming process; Kuba men weave, while the women embroider and appliqué. Kuba men first gather the leaves of the raffia tree and then dye it by using mud and substances from the camwood tree. The men rub the raffia fibers in their hands to soften and make it easier for weaving. After the men have completed the cloth their women embroider the patterns with a few threads of raffia fibers.
There are several different groups of the Kuba people living in DR Congo. Each group has a different and unique way to make the fabric. Some of them make it thicker, longer, with different colors and patterns. Each pattern is symbolic and many times a piece has many different meanings. The original Kuba cloth did not have patches, but as the cloth is quite brittle it is likely that the patches were used to repair the cloth. Nowadays the Kuba people still use the cloth during ceremonial occasions and ritual dances.
Kuba are part of the people that came to the Great Lake areas via the great Bantu migration from West Africa. The original Kuba migrated during the 16th century from the north to reach their current location at the Sankuru river. When they arrived, however, they found that the Twa already lived there. The Twa were eventually absorbed into the Kuba Kingdom.
Apart from the Bushoong speaking principalities, other Kuba people includes the Kete, Coofa, Mbeengi, and the Cwa Pygmies. The Kuba people always refer to themselves as the Bakuba which translates to “people of the throwing knife”.
Kuba people speak Bushong (Bushoong, Bushongo, Busoong, Shongo, Ganga, Kuba, Mbale, Bamongo, Mongo) language which belongs to Bantu language group of the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The height of the Kingdom was during the mid-19th century.
Europeans first reached the area in 1884, but the Kuba, being relatively isolated, were not as affected by the slave trade as many of the other peoples in the area. The Nsapo invaded during the late 19th century, and the Kingdom was broken up to a large extent.
Nineteen different ethnic groups including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kel, Pyaang, Bulaang, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk, and Ngongo formed the Kingdom, which still exists and is presided over by the Nyim, or King. The King of Kuba is always Bushoong. Each of the ethnic groups has a representative in residence at the Bushoong court. The current reigning monarch, Kot-a-Mbweeky III, has been on the throne since 1969.
The first explorer to discover the existence of the Kuba people and enter their Kingdom was William Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian, in 1892. German explorers were the next to visit this Kingdom between 1907-1909; they have gathered the most complete ethnographic history to date.