At The Hood: The Secret Patterns Of Ukara Cloth

 Igbo People, Nigeria; Giant ukara, used for a backdrop in an Ekpe lodge; ca early 2000s; indigo dyed cotton, 233 x 78 in.All works in this post are made in the past 30 or 40 years; all are in the collection of Professor Eli Bentor of Appalachian State University. 

Just like some other animals––bowerbirds, for instance, where the males decorate their nests to attract females––humans have a deep aesthetic sense. Therefore, many objects made for practical or ceremonial use are beautiful, which enhances their meaning and worth. There is currently a show of stunning Ukara indigo dyed cloth at the Hood Museum of Art, made for the Ekpe male secret society of Nigeria and Cameroon. Whether very large, like the backdrop cloth above, or smaller, meant to be tied around the hips, their designs are based on a grid of abstract or imagist patterns.

The designs are called nsibidi, and their meanings are secret, known only to members of the society. They are full of energetic life, enhanced by the breaking of the grid by images of animals, reptiles, and human figures.

Here is a smaller piece that emphasizes squares filled with geometric patterns. A small leopard overflows his square, changing the regular rhythm.

A very interesting part of the story of this cloth is that it is not made by members of the Ekpe society, but is commissioned and produced in a distant village by the Ezillo people. The drawing of the patterns on the industrially produced cotton is done by an Ezillo man, based on a grid.

The cloth is then handed on to another man who sews the designs using raffia.

The job of indigo dyeing, which is a complex process, is done by women.

The raffia is then removed, often by young people; this is not a job that is for only men or women. Where the cloth was tied, white patterns are left, a kind of resist dyeing. You can see the wrinkled texture of the cloth where it was bound with raffia.

Although I know nothing of the meanings conveyed by these cloths, I appreciate them as marvelous objects whose simple patterns join in a powerfully rhythmic way.

Their combinations of geometry and image speak to essentials in life and in how we see the world; repetitive pattern seems to be the heartbeat of art.