The Kuba ethnicity, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (previously Zaire), has woven cloth from raffia since the 12th C at least, appearing in Europe from the 17th C. Kuba men are responsible for growing, then weaving a base cloth of raffia (called mbal); women then work the fabric with decorative techniques: beating it with wooden mallets to make it smooth enough to wear: the patina and softened edges wrought by the mallet make the cloth very beautiful, almost like linen–which is extraordinary for such an inherently inflexible material; they may also dye it with natural vegetal dyes, create a pile (see Kasai) and embroider, appliqué or patchwork it.
The lengths take many months to weave, and are used as ceremonial and court dress, valued for their symbolism and as a sign of wealth. The various designs are graphic and look very contemporary–suited to minimal decoration; the personal touch of hand work ensures that each one is slightly different from all others.
Hand made textiles really speak to an environment–everybody wants to touch them, to check how they feel and then to ask questions about it.
Kuba’s off-white or straw coloured ground with strong and dramatic bold black stitching works surprisingly well in all sorts of environments, and especially with Indo-European influenced furnishings. Full lengths displayed as wall hangings are as striking in an all white room as any contemporary artwork, a good companion to prints and a positive lift to subtle or sombre darker tones.
The raffia texture is useful as another texture and dimension especially for stools, cushions and odd chairs.