The Bakuba and Mbuti: textiles and tapas

Afro Brasil Museum

Explore the natural techniques used by communities in Africa to create beautiful textiles

The Bakuba's textile spinning
The Bakuba's artistic expression in the Southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo reflects its cultural values. Different aspects as the importance of monarch institution, the social stratification, the pride of warrior and sacerdotal group, as the belonging to initial groups and associations of exclusive power can be  widely distinguished from the clothing, tapestry, and other sort of practical use of weaving. In Bakuba's oral history it is told that the first king -- Nyimi -- to introduce weaving was Shamba Bolongongo (circa 1600). He was the 93º king of Bakuba people, who was known as a pacific and civilized sovereign to introduce in his reign other people technology, and also to value the arts.

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
66,5 x 244 cm

The main raw material for the Bakuba textiles is the raffia. Raffia is a kind of palm tree from Africa and South America.

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
75 x 238 cm

Its leaves, in the shape of elongated pins, are among the biggest in the world and, exactly because of that, they are extremely useful in the production of cloths.

The extraction of leaves and the very thin fiber preparation that will be used as a base of the textile creation congregate a reasonable quantity of people -- men, women, and children.

After the manufacture of the textile cloth and the manually or by weaving machines transformation of the textile, it is possible to continue the ornamentation process followed by the several possible methods of embellishment.

Among the beautification methods used by the Bakuba, the main ones are universally known: application (bonding of superimposed materials); the embroidery (which is the act of weaving a spinning aiming at the formation of specific designs in the fabric already manufactured); tie-dye (technique of dyeing, which can be done before or after embroidery); and the least used, the Patchwork method (which is to create patterns from cuts and flaps by removing areas from the base of the fabric). The appropriate yarn for weaving should be quite thin, so they use sheets of very young palm trees, which are put in the sun to dry getting the yarns.

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
58 x 189,5 cm

The yarn making process can be done in two ways: either by wrapping the sheet fibers one by one by hand, or by using a comb with a hook to defibrate them (which greatly facilitates the work).

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
62,5 x 282 cm

There are many methods employed in the "relaxation" of these fibers. They are, for example, combed and scraped with a snail shell or other sharp tool until they can be smooth.

Another usual procedure is to make the already woven part be submitted to a container with water, leaving it to soak. Then, after wrapping it in other fabrics to protect it, it is punched carefully with a wooden pestle.

This process converts rough fibers similar to dry weeds into soft, delicate, soft yarns, essential components in the appreciation of the Bakuba raffia art.

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
50 x 112 cm

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
70 x 542 cm

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)

Wraparound skirt

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)

The embroidery by the Bakuba women
While the weaving work is reserved for men, the embroidery of the fabric fits the women. The woman is the leader in the work of embroidery: it is she who decides what the general patterns used and the colors will be, in addition to coordinating the production. Bakuba women have a relevant role in politics, often holding positions of leadership and priesthood. Even today, women artisans are in charge of producing elegant embroidered fabrics. Among the forms of embroidery, the most notable are the so-called "Kasai velvets". They are specially made by a Bakuba group called Shoowa. This velvet is made from the fabric of the raffia defibrated, which is used as a back cloth.

The effect of quilting on the inclusion of textile layers is obtained by a very thin raffia thread, which passes underneath the canvas and appears at the top, where it is cut with a small knife.

Kasaï velvet

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
52,5 x 56 cm

Traditionally, the Bakuba create their inks from natural materials. In addition to the natural color of raffia, the main colors used are yellow, red, black and white.

Kasaï velvet

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
58,5 x 65,5 cm

Red is obtained from African sandalwood (wood cam), yellow comes from the brimstone tree, the black color is withdrawn from the mixture of puddle mud and vegetable sources, and finally white is taken from a mineral called kaolin.

The motifs are usually developed with a needle, and the composition follows the criterion of color parallelism, establishing and alternating the lighter and darker shades to enhance the shapes.

Kasaï velvet

Embroidered plant textile (raffia)
61 x 112 cm

This work is not only carried out by women, but in fact it was the women who created the "Kasai velvet".

Although the formal solution of these patterns is abstract, some researchers point to the natural inspiration of these geometric forms. Thus, natural forms such as the zigzagged scales of a mammal called pangolin, turtle hull shapes or designs called "bambi" ("antelope" in the bakuba language), among others, would be appreciated. In fact, there are over 200 types of traditional patterns (produced from triangles, hexagons, squares, chess and other compositions) that are passed down from generation to generation.

One can also perceive an intimate relationship between the patterns developed in the fabrics and those presented in the Bakuba sculptures. In some cases, in addition to their own insignia, certain geometric forms appearing in fabrics and other forms of Bakuba art are unique to certain social positions. Historically, artistic conceptions generally reproduced in part the forms of scarification, which are scars embedded in the skin as "tattoos" that serve as distinctives of identity and hierarchy.

The Tapas of the Mbuti people
The Mbuti people constitute an ethnic group of hunter-gatherers of non-banta origin. They live in small groups of 10 to 80 individuals in the Great Lakes region and in the Ituri forest in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Comparatively, one of their genetic characteristics is the short stature (the adults reach about one and a half meters in height) and they are known, for that very reason, by the name of "pygmies". However, this name derives from legends and was pejoratively imposed by Europeans. The term Pygmies (from the Greek pygmies) means "the measurement of the forearm" (one cubit). There is indeed in Homer's Iliad Canto III an account of a people of little individuals who lived on the banks of the Nile in Egypt (or even India, according to some sources).

However, the so-called pygmies are in fact indigenous African people who have been hit by invasions with which they have genetically and culturally integrated themselves or from where they were expelled.

Plant textile - barkcloth

The Mbuti are excellent producers of the fibrous blanket that we call "tapa". The word was originally used to designate an ornate fiber type produced from the weed of certain types of trees, and the Mbuti remove it from the fig tree.

The technique of extracting this fibrous blanket is millenarian and is also common in the Samoa archipelago in Oceania, where the term "tapa" comes from. The production of Mbuti tapas is a collective activity.


Plant textile - barkcloth
4,6 x 49,5 x 84,5 cm

Men are responsible for the process of tearing the ribs to modify their texture and strength. Women are responsible for choosing the tree and for performing the artistic motifs of the artwork.

The technique of removing an inner layer of the stem of the tree is developed as follows: two horizontal cuts are made in the "skin" of the tree, then cut in vertical cuts. A piece of this binder is removed by subjecting it to a softening process.

Are given repeated blows (or "tapas") on the blanket with ivory or wood hammers; then the fibrous material is soaked in water, repeating the process as many times as necessary to obtain not only the malleability as well as the correct thickness of the blanket.


Plant textile - barkcloth
4 x 45,5 x 87,8 cm

The result of this practice is a fluffy, soft and multi-purpose fibrous blanket. The final "fabric" is ornamented by means of monochromatic stamping with intricate geometric designs that resemble the traces of engravings.

The process of producing the dye that will define the designs printed on the lid is developed by means of natural and organic sources. The paint is produced from the blend of charcoal milled with fruit juice. Already the artistic motifs are outlined on the blanket with the finger or with a small smooth rod, specially manufactured for that purpose. From a strictly aesthetic point of view, we can say that, basically, the traits are abstract and the artists Mbuti use compositions that alternate organic and geometric forms, parallel lines, zigzag, and many other forms.

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