Kente Cloth Black History Month 1994

February 17, 1994|By Eric V. Copage | Eric V. Copage,New York Times Special Features

In his native Ghana, Dr. Kwaku Ofori-Ansa always knew that kente cloth had a special significance.

"It was always around, but not something to be seen on a daily basis. It used to be for very, very special occasions," says Dr. Ofori-Ansa, who lives in Hyattsville. The professor of African art at Howard University is writing a book on the historical significance of kente cloth.

Kente cloth and the vibrant prints based on its patterns are everywhere: in African-American churches as narrow columns of colorful fabric cascading over the shoulders of chorus members; on crowded urban streets in the vivid hues of pedestrians' hats; nTC as blossoms of light on drab, rainy days when brightly colored umbrellas are unfurled.

Kente-cloth patterns can also be seen on ties, scarves, backpacks, book covers, pillows, bedspreads . . . even shower ** curtains.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this richly textured fabric, long worn by West African royalty as a sign of wealth and authority, has become the material of choice for black Americans wishing to express pride in their African heritage.

Strictly speaking, kente is a product of the Asante people of Ghana, although recently, in the United States, the name has come to refer to West African strip cloth in general.

Most of what is around is not true kente, but rather prints based on kente patterns. True kente is 4- to 5-inch strips of woven silk, rayon or cotton from which are sewn the "togas" worn by men in traditional West African societies.

Just as jazz, rap and African-American slang were adopted into white culture, clothes and accessories bearing kente patterns are today being worn by whites, too.

As the interest in kente cloth grows, Dr. Ofori-Ansa says, people want to know the meaning behind the fabric. "There is a lot of interest in the history and symbolism on kente cloth," he says.

But most Americans, regardless of their ethnic background, don't know or fully appreciate that the colors and designs of kente cloth have meanings and traditional associations.

Sporting kente cloth when one is ignorant of its meaning can be embarrassing.

"I saw a man wearing a fertility pattern, a motif usually worn by young women who want to get pregnant," said Asie K. Ocansey, a member of the Asante people and the head of the New York-based ABC International, which custom-designs and imports kente cloth.

A specific abstract kente pattern might be affiliated with a

particular clan or royal lineage, somewhat similar to Scottish tartans.

Anyone wearing the "Oyokomma" or "Children of Oyoko" design would be assumed to be a member of that clan.

Motifs also have designated meanings that refer to proverbs or historical references.

Colors also represent ideas.

While aquas, teals and violets are making their way into kente designers palettes, the traditional colors and their meanings are:

* Golds and yellows, the so-called "chicken fat" colors, which signify prosperity, royalty, maturity and the influence of God in society.

* White, which stands for virginity, virtue, victory.

* Black, which conjures images of the night, history and power over the forces of life (a recent connotation is "people of Africa or of African descent").

* Reds, which represent the blood sacrifice of previous generations.

L * Blues, which indicate love, tenderness, the crescent moon.

* Greens, which are for youth, vitality and fertility.

Today's kente-cloth weavers keep their craft vital by constantly creating new designs.

Using traditional guidelines, anyone can create his or her own pattern or a pattern for his or her family.

Enthusiasm for kente cloth is not new.

Since the 1960s and across the breadth of Africa, kente, which is believed to be derived from the Fante word for basket, has been a symbol for black solidarity and pride and has been integrated into the designs of shirts, jackets and caps.

Today, even those who are not aware of the exact meaning of the thousands of motifs seem to intuitively understand that kente conveys a message.

Eric Copage, an editor of The New York Times Magazine, lectures frequently on black culture. Sun staff writer Sandra Crockett contributed to this article.

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