] 03 Mastering the Variables
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The Veranda of Floating Threads

Religion and Art in Ashanti, by R.S. Rattray, 1927

03 Mastering the Variables

One of the first Westerners to study the culture and customs of the Ashanti was Robert Sutherland Rattray, better known as Captain R.S. Rattray. Rattray received his education in Law and Anthropology at Oxford University. In 1906, after serving in the British Forces in South Africa, he was stationed in the Gold Coast which was a British Crown Colony on the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa. From 1921 till his retirement in 1930, Rattray headed the newly created ‘Anthropological Department of Ashanti, West-Africa’ which allowed him to dedicate his time wholly to his field research and writings on the Ashanti.

Rattray’s three part ‘general survey’ on the Ashanti has long been mandatory reading for any student on the subject; both in Ghana and abroad. He was also one of the first to embark on a detailed and systematic study of kente weaving. His inventory of over 200 kente patterns and their symbolic meaning is still a standard work for kente scholars and practitioners. After a short introduction on the customs and uses related to the folklore craft, Rattray describes the weaving technique of a few patterns, starting with the selection of colours for the warp and the weft. What follows is a meticulous recording of each manipulation of every single thread in the creation of one particular pattern. To support his in-depth analysis, Rattray included a schematic breakdown representing the different sequences according to which the shuttle passes through the sheds, using numbers and capital letters to indicate the colour of individual threads and their position.

Reading his technical descriptions of kente weaving is like trying to comprehend a foreign language; even with the accompanying illustrations his abstract and schematic reproductions still look like algebraic code. No wonder some scholars have taken Rattray’s diagrams to prove that Akan and Ashanti weaving patterns were in fact based on mathematical formula, such as the ‘Fibonacci sequence’, or ‘Pascal’s triangle’.

Scientific mindset
Rattray’s detailed description and systematic unravelling of the patterns he encountered during his field research illustrates his scientific ambition, which was to understand the true nature of the object in front of him, and to lay bare the variables and inner logic of each design. Rattray’s scientific mindset was indicative of the outlook on science that prevailed at the turn of the 20th Century, when early modern anthropology was still very much indebted to the Enlightenment ideals of ‘proper method’ and ‘true knowledge’. Driven by the idea that society and human behaviour, like natural phenomena, could be explained according to certain mathematical principles and patterns, an important task for the anthropologist was to collect empirical data and to systematically describe, classify and catalogue all known phenomena and varieties in the world. Like the Natural Philosophers and Encyclopaedists in previous centuries, early modern anthropology believed that by studying human beings, their customs and cultures as objects, a deeper understanding of the divine order of things would manifest itself. Of course, the a priori idea here is that the universe does in fact adhere to a certain order.

Here, in the encounter between an African textile tradition and a modern Western knowledge system, a fascinating symmetry unfolds between the unravelling of the intricate patterns of kente weaving, and the quest to uncover the patterns that organise the complex fabric of our universe. In both cases, being able to determine the variables and understand the ways in which different variations are produced would imply a form of mastery.

Colonial Gaze
However, when these noble ambitions are pursued under the aegis of a colonial authority, such as the British Colonial Service in the Gold Coast, other power relations come into play. For one, applying a western scientific model unto a local craft and culture already entails taking a kind of ownership.

Even when the anthropologist has undertaken his task with utmost respect and admiration of the ‘other’, it still means that one system of thought and one view of the world has been imposed upon another. Disconnected from its own cultural context and absorbed into another; kente’s original character of a fabric set in motion through body movements creating a dazzling visual vertigo, is disregarded and reduced to a flattened surface, subject to western scientific projections.

Last but not least, as part of the British Colonial Service, the research done by the Anthropological Department was by no means neutral in its objective but served an imperialist agenda, as the consensus at the time was that understanding the laws and culture of those ‘unknown’ societies would benefit the colonial powers in ruling the country.

Continue reading: 04 Symbols and Legends