The Animal Guides of Ewe Kente

Ewe kente and its zoocentric symbolic language is one of Ghana’s intangible traditions. Master weaver Bob Dennis Ahiagble is taking steps to ensure its survival.

 

Ewe kente – ‘Asidanuvo’ hand picked “one-sided” float pattern cloth (detail). Courtesy of adireafricantextiles.com

 

Weaving is a gift from the animal kingdom. In Ewe culture, oral legend traces kente back to the hands of an exhausted hunter. Upon taking rest this hunter began to observe a spider weaving its web. This inspired an imitation of the process on what is now called the children’s loom.

Many claim this spider to be the famed Anansi. Known to the Ewe as Ayiyi, this popular folkloric arachnid is a central figure in the traditional stories of Voltaic Ghana. Children have long been raised on tales of this lovable trickster. The diminutive character uses wit and cunning to overcome the strengths of others. Anansi is not the only animal guide associated with Ewe kente; numerous species populate the cloth and each hold an individual purpose.

Ewe kente abounds with proverbial symbolism of both animal and inanimate kind. It plays a vital role in adorning the revered during traditional rituals, rites of passages or other such milestones. The cloth is imbued with ancestral spirituality and reflects ones wealth and status.

 


 

The cultural relevance of kente has not waned. Ewe weavers are still supplying key regalia as investments to be passed down through the generations. The practice has also been adapted into more saleable items such as clothing and home furnishings. This broader use of Ewe kente has opened it up to a wider audience without diminishing its ceremonial significance.

To be a master weaver is a family affair, Bob Dennis Ahiagble learnt the tradition alongside his brother through the teachings of his father. Ahiagble aims to raise the standard of weaving locally and the awareness on a global scale. By passing on this essential cultural facet of Ghana to younger generations, Ahiagble is offering employment to the under-privileged and ensuring the survival of Ewe kente.

As the author of The Pride of Ewe Kente and the upcoming Woven Cloths, Africa’s Heritage, Ahiagble delivers his expertise by way of workshops and demonstrations throughout Ghana and beyond.

 

Bob Dennis Ahiagble, Kente cloth weaving demonstration, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2012.

 

‘Style Africa’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery—an exhibition of which Ahiagble was a part—conveyed the capacity and diversity in which clothing can communicate. In this context Ahiagble declares Ewe kente “a visual presentation of history, oral literature, philosophy, moral principles, religious beliefs and rules of social conduct.”

Kente cloth can be read like an instruction manual. Each animal and object recalls popular proverbs or sayings to indicate how we should conduct ourselves. Society is warned against unwise manners on a personal level and for the greater good of the community.

 


 

Among the animals that populate Ewe kente are crabs of determination, bitter scorpions, birds of merriment and punctual butterflies. The mighty elephant is the emblem of successful leadership, suggested by such proverbs as “No one follows the elephant in the bush and gets wet from the morning dew.” While the crocodile’s connotations with invincibility and danger is apparent upon seeing its thick skin and fearsome jaws. The aquatic nature of the reptilian provides man with insights on which to reflect. As the saying goes, “Crocodiles do not drown in a river no matter how deep the river is”. One can prevail in even the most difficult of circumstances.

 

Ewe kente – ‘Asidanuvo’ hand picked “one-sided” float pattern cloth (detail). Courtesy of adireafricantextiles.com

 

The gecko silently lingers in the most secret places or rooms. A cloth on which it appears teaches us to be mindful of where we tell our secrets and to whom. The gecko represents and calls for silence. With its careful stride, the chameleon is a symbol of patience and versatility. The world is a place of change and the chameleon, by manipulation of colour, implores us to change with it.

Mere observations of another species adaptation for survival can have a positive effect on our own. The human brain can tailor the behavioural and physical traits of animals into tools of social governance, as demonstrated through proverb and fabric. Ewe kente is a compelling case of how animals necessitated the development of the human societal structure.

 

Ewe kente by Bob Dennis Ahiagble. Courtesy of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

 

Ewe kente – Guinea Fowl  (detail). Courtesy of adireafricantextiles.com

 

Bob Dennis Ahiagble is a master weaver of kente cloth. He has exhibited widely in his native Ghana and beyond. In 2003 he was recognised by UNESCO for his skill, leading to the listing of Ewe kente as an intangible heritage. He passionately endeavours to keep alive the tradition of hand-looming kente for generations to come.

Dennis, Ahiagble Bob. The Pride of Ewe Kente. Accra: Sub-Saharan, 2004. Print.
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Adire African Textiles is a London–based gallery dedicated to exploring the vintage textile traditions. Working with a network of partners throughout West Africa, Adire African Textiles sources museum–quality textiles for leading museums, private collectors, and interior designers.

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Written by Keiron LeVine.

Ghana | Doing our part to combat immappancy

All images courtesy of the artists. All rights reserved.

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