Although I own a women’s set of kente cloth, I have never worn a full kente outfit. There has not yet been an occasion in my life important enough to justify it. As I once told a group of graduate students, it is my Oscar de la Renta – the equivalent of red carpet attire – and there are very few red carpets in my line of work. I am a minority among the women in my family in never having worn kente clothing. My mother possesses a stunning red kente outfit that she wore to formal dinners and receptions earlier in her life. She routinely loaned a second one to two of my sisters when they attended a girls’ boarding school where kente was required wear for annual prize-giving ceremonies. A third sister owns a kente ensemble that she wears to weddings and other special events. I do have a few kente stoles that I throw over my shoulder on special occasions though it is challenging to wear them in the U.S. where, all too often, my Ghanaian clothing turns me from a person into a colorful and exotic living artifact. Therefore, between limited red carpet opportunities and the risk of exotic objectification kente, for me, is less wardrobe item and more treasure that I will leave to the younger women in my family when I die. Cloth is, after all, an important way that Ghanaian women accumulate and pass on wealth.
For mundane occasions, I could wear the relatively cheap roller-printed imitation kente that has proliferated in Ghana for several decades, but I have a strong aversion to it even though, at a distance, some imitation kente is almost indistinguishable from the handwoven kind. It has gained wide acceptance in Ghana, and where initially there seemed to be a strong distinction made in the two kinds of kente and the uses to which they could be put, that seems to be eroding, and more people seem to wear imitation kente as readily to church as to the office. Here again, there is a difference between me and at least one member of my family. Like me, my youngest sister ranks handwoven cloth above the mass-produced versions. However, she is willing to wear the imitations – just not to special events – and she has tried to persuade me to do the same. Women like my sister, who can afford both handwoven and imitation kente, appear to maintain the distinction between events where you should wear only handmade cloth and those where the imitation will do. Imitation kente has also found a market in the African Diaspora, and I will come to this a little later.
Then there is adinkra – another distinctive fabric that also emerged in Asante as a royal monopoly and around which the same restrictions continue when it comes to cloth worn in the presence of the Asantehene. While kente is distinctive for its rich color palette and its association with wealth and celebration, adinkra is important for mourning. The words “di nkra” in the Akan language mean to take one’s leave, and adinkra is worn when a person takes her leave of this world and passes into the world of the ancestors (Arthur). In addition to its importance for this final rite of passage, adinkra cloth is noted for the symbols used in its production and the distinctive meanings associated with each one. Like kente, mass-produced imitations of adinkra cloth are common. They are also cheaper than the original hand stenciled cloth and a widely-accepted alternative for funeral wear.
The most well-known adinkra symbol is Gye Nyame which has come to symbolize the power of God. Another that is very important among African Americans is Sankofa, a symbol that is found not only in adinkra but also in the equally distinctive Akan medium of carved wooden linguists’ staffs. The Sankofa symbol features a bird with its head turned around to look over its back and symbolizes returning to retrieve what has been forgotten – the basis of its appeal in Black America. For me, the significance of adinkra occurs at different levels. I started my professional life as an artist working with text and images and, in that context, adinkra was an additional set of expressive symbols that I could use in my work. For a long time, that was its strongest value for me – much less than its significance as mourning attire. This is perhaps because unlike kente, no-one in my family wears adinkra.
In my research cloth makers told me that although adinkra is important for funerals, it is not worn during the most intense periods of mourning. During those periods, the required cloth is black or red ochre. Traditionally, these are dyed by women, who continue to produce the black cloth called kuntunkuni. In addition to its use for deep mourning, kuntunkuni is also used in conducting business at the Asantehene’s palace. While it is the adinkra cloth made by men that attracts most attention outside Asante society, the cloth that women make is perhaps more important in being set apart for these more somber uses. My family’s funeral attire choices reflect this distinction, and we wear black for deep mourning especially when a close relative dies. Where the connection is less strong, the palette can range from black to light brown. In the case of the death of a very young or very old person, it can even be white. For such funerals that do not require solid black cloth, we wear cotton prints that may include imitation adinkra.
These differing uses of handmade and imitation adinkra and kente tell us something about the importance of cloth as a material object among some Ghanaian ethnic groups. As I mentioned earlier, cloth is a means of storing and transferring wealth and women, in particular, will purchase good quality cloth as an investment and not necessarily to add to their wardrobe. Such cloth may be stored unsewn for years and passed on to a woman’s heirs if she does not use it during her lifetime. Kente is the ultimate form of cloth as wealth. Its value is not easily separated from its material form as handwoven cloth, and its cultural and social distinctiveness make it a strong investment. Adinkra does not hold wealth to the same extent, and its symbols retain their significance even when separated from their primary medium of cloth, as can be seen in the use of Sankofa by African American communities, and Ghanaian artists’ conversion of adinkra into a range of media including jewelry. For me, my mother and sisters, it makes better economic sense to invest in kente and even in good quality wax prints than in adinkra.
This article is a snippet of the research conducted by Dr. Boatema Boateng in the paper entitled, “Adinkra and Kente Cloth in History, Law, and Life” (2014). It was republished with the permission of the author.
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