International Influence
Colonialism

In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established a privately controlled corporate state around the Congo River basin. His desire to extract the rich natural resources of Central Africa- rubber trees, copper deposits, and precious gems- was his motivation. Over the next 20 years, King Leopold II ordered a series of attacks against the area's Kuba and other Native populations. These attacks disrupted local societies and forced men, women, and children to work or be killed. By 1900, the Kuba Kingdom had fragmented. 

map-Belgian-Congo.gif

The Belgian Congo

Photo credit: Brittanica

A Catholic nun poses with the women employed to make textiles to sell for their mission, date unknown 

Photo credit: Archive Kannunikesen van St. Augustinus,KADOC

In 1908, Belgium annexed the Congo Basin as a colony. Catholic missionaries began entering the region, establishing missions across the country. Early missionaries immediately recognized the great beauty of Kuba design cloths and began to sell them to raise funds. From 1915, Kuba design cloths produced under the supervision of Belgian priests, monks, and nuns began to enter Europe. 

Design cloths produced after the Belgian colonization of the Kuba Kingdom began to conform to European tastes. The missionaries prioritized rigid geometric designs that sold quickly. The individuality and variation in design cloths that had been the norm started to disappear. 

Many missions founded schools to convert Kuba children to Christianity and teach them to read and write in French 

Photo credit: Archive Kannunikesen van St. Augustinus,KADOC

The missionary influence extended to all aspects of Kuba art. By 1950 an art school was established in the Kuba capital of Mushenge by Josephite priests. They desired to preserve and create Kuba art but required their students to copy rigid designs and use western art methods. Though pleasing to European buyers, the resulting artworks lacked the free-flowing ease that defined Kuba art for centuries.

Two students carve statues to be sold in Europe. Institut des Beaux Arts, Mushenge. Date unknown

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute

The cover of Volume 12 of African Arts magazine renewed interest in design cloths around the world

Photo credit: African Arts Magazine

This design cloth is typical of those produced after 1980. It is square rather than rectangular and completely covered in cut-pile stitching

Photo credit: Logan Museum of Anthropology

In 1978, the American academic journal African Arts published an article on Kuba textiles. The image of a design cloth used for the front cover took the art world by storm. The international popularity of Kuba design cloths continued to increase throughout the 1980s. Soon, demand for authentic design cloths far surpassed supply. 

To profit from this surge in demand, Kuba women began producing textiles as quickly as possible. They copied popular patterns and used cut-pile stitches to fill large areas of designs rapidly. For the first time, men began stitching design cloths. In some cases, design cloth traders stole cloths from graves and village storehouses for sale at inflated prices.

Boys learn to stitch design cloths in 2021. Stitching can now be performed by men and women.

Photo credit: Futur-Velours.com