A Future of Design Cloths

In 2019, Belgian artist Bren Heymans began working with women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to produce 'hybrid fabrics'. Heymans sketches an initial design on a raffia base cloth which is completed by Kuba textile artists.

The artists are free to experiment with form and color, making adjustments to the original design as they see fit. This freedom often manifests in the slight variation common in older Kuba textiles. 

A base cloth with blocked out design by Bren Heymans. Drawing the design takes upwards of a week. 

Image courtesy of Bren Heymans

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The artists who work with Bren Heymans have often been embroidering since they were teenagers. Sewing design cloths is a skill passed down within families. Germaine Kady (pictured) completes one design cloth every three months and uses the money she earns to send her children to school. Germaine also embroiders design cloths for the Kuba king and his court.

Germaine Kady embroiders design cloths full time to support her family

Image courtesy of Bren Heymans

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Design cloths have always been used to tell stories, but Bren Heymans creates designs which highlight the colonial past of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its impact on design cloth production.

This cloth, called Guardians of Symmetry, shows how colonial standards of design have altered the traditional methods used to make design cloths. The cloth evokes scenes from the Mushenge art school in the 1950s. 

Guardians of Symmetry by Bren Heymans and Germaine Kady.

Photo credit: Logan Museum of Anthropology

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There is no one future for the production of Kuba design cloths, but Kuba textile artists like Germaine Kady are ensuring the skills necessary for production are passed down to future generations.

The original image used to inspire Guardians of Symmetry shows a sculpture class at the Mushenge art school in the 1950s. Two Josephite priests supervise their Kuba students. 

Photo credit: Elisabeth Cameron