Today, kente has become a token of ‘Africanness’ in modern state Ghana and other West-African countries, but also, maybe even more so, abroad. In the United-States and in Europe for instance, kente designed fabrics are worn with pride amongst the African diasporas in celebration of a shared cultural heritage. One particular example is the use of a single woven strip of kente as a ‘stole’ in academic or liturgic ceremonial dress.
Clothing can communicate dissent or alliance, belonging and political belief. However, the commodification of kente as a cultural signifier for a shared African heritage and identity – and of a shared history of suppression and exploitation – is not without criticism or dismay. In her article ‘Embarrassment of Democrats Wearing Kente-Cloth Stoles’ for The New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix shares her insightful critique on the choice of prominent Democrats to express their solidarity with the Black community by wearing kente-cloth stoles. One of the arguments concerns the use of kente cloth as a uniform and universal symbol of (all) African heritage, aligning it with, what St. Félix calls, ‘the myth of the black monolith’, that is the idea (and representation) of the Black community as a bloc. But if there is one lesson we must have learned from our recent past, it is that cultural identities are never homogenous and uniform. In fact, it is the opposite. (St. Félix refers to recent rifts between black liberals and black leftists within the Black Lives Matter movement.)
Of course, no object, image or visual design can represent the whole of a nation, let alone the whole of a continent. And sure, all over the world, cultural heritage has become part of a process of commodification and commercialisation. But the naiveté with which these politicians use a cultural artefact to make a political statement (staged in front of the camera) just demonstrates a lack of knowledge (or willingness) to engage oneself with the complexities that lay beyond the surface.
Interestingly, the history of kente only supports this critique. Like most textiles in the world, the craft of kente weaving has been shaped overt time, influenced by encounters with different cultures. For starters, its basic technique of strip weaving, which has been the domestic industry of nomadic people for over two thousand years, was most likely introduced to the Ashanti from the northern and eastern fringes of Africa. The flow of trade goods between the peoples of sub-Saharan West-Africa and European, Mediterranean, and Asian ‘civilisations’ introduced fine textiles such as cotton, linen and silk; materials not local to the region but became the basic materials for traditional kente weaving. Today, synthetic fibres are imported for modern kente production.
Kente’s characteristic vibrant colour palette is also the product of the various encounters and exchanges with different crafts culture during centuries of trade and colonial expansion. The story behind the introduction of silk as an exclusive material for kente cloths is a telling example of the way in which history of trade and the movement of people and goods, have shaped local crafts production. Since the 16th century, different European countries traded their goods in order acquire precious ivory and gold. Since exotic textiles were a popular luxury item, the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, French, Danish and British, would import and trade items such as precious Indian and Chinese silk fabrics along the Guinea coast, in exchange for gold and slaves. Local craftsmen would unravel the silk fabrics and re-use the individual threads in their weavings. This is how Chinese silk was introduced into the very fabric of kente cloth.
These are just a few examples of the different threads that make up what is now considered as ‘authentic’ kente cloth. Time, trade and travel created a textile craft out of mixed origins; pluriform in its pattern design, its material technique, and its cultural history. Appropriating it as a symbol to represent the whole of the Black community, not only flattens the cultural richness and historical complexity of the textile, it also reduces a vast and immensely heterogenous group of people into one identity.