NPR: A Great African Kingdom Tells Its History In Fabulous Royal Clothes

A new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art combines carbon dating, beautiful textiles, and a turbulent history.

This textile would have been used as an "overskirt." It has been dated to 1736‑1799 and is the oldest piece in the exhibition.   Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art

This textile would have been used as an "overskirt." It has been dated to 1736‑1799 and is the oldest piece in the exhibition.

Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art

This story first appeared on NPR.

What can an old piece of cloth tell us about the rise and fall of a kingdom? Quite a lot, if you know how to read it.

That's the premise behind a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art titled "Kuba: Fabric of an Empire." It features an array of captivating patterned textiles from the Kuba Kingdom, which between the 17th and early 20th centuries was one of Africa's largest and most powerful societies, controlling trade in ivory and rubber in what is today the southeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Kuba were renowned for their artistry, and today any museum of African art in the U.S. or Europe is likely to display Kuba sculpture, masks, beadwork or especially textiles, which were commissioned by royalty and worn or displayed for ceremonial occasions. The textiles are made of woven and dyed raffia palm fronds and feature hypnotic geometric designs mostly in shades of black and tan.

In some, the designs are stitched; in others, serpentine cutouts are appliquéd onto a raffia backing. Some are 20 feet long and meant to be worn as a wrapped unisex skirt; others are 2-foot-square panels meant to be hung on display behind a royal throne.

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