One of Marion Barry's suit jackets, circa 1994, is hanging in a case in "Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity," a touring exhibition visiting the Mall.
Its fabric is a blue gabardine of a somber mayoral hue, as one would expect. That's what mayors wear. But its collar and lapels are trimmed in yellow, red and green kente cloth from Africa. Barry's jacket, his politician's uniform with its badge of black identity, is a multi-message garment in a multi-message show.
In the courts of the Ewe and Ashanti, kente is the cloth of gods and kings. In America, kente--on shopping bags, key rings, potholders, preachers' robes and Band-Aids--has become a kind of logo. How the one became the other--how a costly fabric of high status became, in the diaspora, a ubiquitous slapped-on trademark for Africa the Motherland--is the story, a rich one told by "Wrapped in Pride" at length.
The show is so big that it is on display at two Smithsonian locations, the National Museum of African Art and the Arts and Industries Building next door.
Its reach is so extensive that it ranges from high art to kitsch. It's got working looms and teddy bears and a market stall imported whole from Bonwire in Ghana. It's got photographs of Muhammad Ali, W.E.B. Du Bois, former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah and Mickey Mouse, and the Clintons, all of them in kente. It's got a 347-page catalogue (a good one by Doran H. Ross, the director of UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History) and costumes worn onstage by Sweet Honey in the Rock. And gleaming at its core are the fabulously flamboyant kente cloths themselves.
Here in multicultural America, kente sends a signal of Africanness and otherness. Like most signals of racial solidarity, kente has an edge to it. Few white folk deign to wear it. Kente doesn't fit their style. Maybe it's the brightness, for deep within the history of white people in America is a preference for the drab.
It's an old preference, that one. It came here when Pilgrims stepped on Plymouth Rock. Those Northern European Protestant dissenters wouldn't wear bright colors. They wore "sadd colors" instead, liver color, russet, deer color, puce. The dreariness they brought us is still everywhere around us. It's in our official culture, our senators' suits, our judges' robes. ("The color of Harvard is a dreary off-purple euphemistically called crimson. . . . On ceremonial occasions, the president of [Brown University] wears a mud-colored garment which is approximately the color of used coffee grounds," observes the historian David Hackett Fischer.) It's in our pop culture. It's as American as jeans or the khakis at the Gap.
It is not Ashanti style.
The chiefs of the Ashanti (Africanists nowadays prefer to call that people the Asante) find entirely respectable a flashier aesthetic. Their necklaces are gold, their bracelets and finger rings and anklets are gold, and just as richly gleaming are the colors of their cloths.
The Ashanti have a king, a royal dynasty, a court. Dim is not their thing. Like the courts of the pharaohs and the caliphs, India's maharajas and Queen Elizabeth II, theirs gets a lot of mileage out of sword bearers and plumes and leopard skins and drums.
Compared with what we wear, their kente cloths are vast. Most are bigger than bedspreads. A characteristic Ashanti kente, say a 9-by-6-foot Oyokoman Adweneasa, might contain 60 miles of colored thread and weigh more than seven pounds.
Anyone can put on a kente T-shirt or a kente Band-Aid, but to wear a regal kente cloth, and to wear it as it should be worn, requires a certain dignity, an uprightness, a flair.
Some part of that aesthetic--that preference for gold agleam against black skin, and boldly shining colors, and strutting it in public--still thrives in West Africa and in black America. It got here with the slaves.
The kente cloths themselves--there are 50 displayed at the National Museum of African Art--are exceptionally beautiful.
And their beauty keeps changing. Sometimes it's the beauty of something old and wondrous, the toga of an emperor or a coat of many colors, and sometimes it's the beauty of an Oriental carpet--it has that sumptuousness, that lavishness, that intricate adjustment of traditional motifs. And sometimes it's the beauty of modern geometric abstraction--say, a multi-stripe color field painting by Gene Davis or a starry Larry Poons.
Except it isn't static. When taken from the wall, when worn or "danced" in sunlight, it becomes a flowing, shifting thing, "a kinetic sculpture," writes Doran Ross, "part kaleidoscope, part kite."
Kente is a regal thing. The Asantahene, the king, who isn't supposed to wear the same textile twice, is reputed to have 300,000 cloths in his treasury. There are cloths that can't be worn except with his permission. Kente is also a token of bravery; a warrior's cloth is as much a sign of valor as a chestful of medals. And kente shows one's wealth. In "olden days," says the catalogue, "a man had to be worth 1,000 in gold dust" to wear the pattern called Nyawoho (literally, "He has become rich").
Kente is also a badge of lineage. The sequencing of colors (red, gold, red, green, red) of the cloth called Oyokoman is as identifiable a reference to the clan as any Scottish tartan. Kente is also a form of recordkeeping. The cloth called "The Queen Comes to Ghana" commemorates Queen Elizabeth's 1961 visit, and the pattern known as Akosombo Nkanea is named for the construction of the Akosombo Hydroelectric Dam.
"The king of Ashanti," reports the catalogue, is said to have worn Nkontomo Ntama, "the liar's cloth," when holding court. The cloth was expected "to confuse persons of doubtful veracity who came before him." When one wears a regal kente in the realm of the Ashanti, many coded messages are beamed out all at once.
For kente is a language. Its colors, and their order, and woven emblems in the fabric issue declarations that the populace can read.
At least the Ghanaian populace can read them. Most American kente wearers are not so cloth-literate. The statement the cloth delivers in this country--on Kwanzaa dolls or shoes or on the vivid canvases of the Africobra painters--is considerably less precise.
Kente's real history is much more complicated than usually acknowledged. For one thing, it's got the Orient in it. A thousand years ago, the weavers of West Africa had little more than palm fiber and indigo for coloring with which to make their textiles. It was only when 17th-century traders arriving from the north began bringing in silks from China--silks the Ashanti painstakingly unraveled--that brilliant, sun-bright colors began entering the cloth.
Its history is also partly Islamic. Islam's insistence on modesty and the covering of the body led directly to the enlargement of the modern kente cloth. It's got England in it, too, for Ghana, before independence, was a colony run by Britain, whose imperialists encouraged the bearing of signs of rank and the wearing of fancy dress.
It was Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana from 1960 to 1966, as much as anyone, who brought kente to America. Nkrumah freed Ghana, and Nkrumah wore kente, and did so in Life magazine and at the United Nations and in the Oval Office. The Ashanti kings weren't exactly democrats, but that didn't seem to matter. The times called out for symbols of liberation, and kente filled the bill. The historical conjunction of "Black Is Beautiful" and the civil rights movement and African decolonization somehow gave a ring of freedom to the wearing of the cloth.
Kente's popularity spread quickly in part because the textile made visual the message it was adopted to convey.
Kente looked African. Its hues were strong and vibrant, its improvisations free. Millions of Americans--who knew little about Ghana or Ashanti clans or proverbs--began to see in kente a reflection of their culture. Once the cloth of rich folk, aristocrats and kings, kente soon began to seem as African American as jazz.
If you took a jazz composition by Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk and tried to form a picture of what you'd heard, kente would come close.
Its grid is the backbeat, its color chords the melody, its emblems are the lyrics of the song, and the whole ensemble swings.
Kente's colors vary--from indigo to gray, from red to vivid orange--but there is something in the spirit of that story-laden fabric that almost everyone who sees it will recognize as black.
"Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity" is a collaborative effort. The show was jointly organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the Newark Museum in Newark, N.J. It is presented here by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art and the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, which organized its "Kente in Washington" segment.
Financial support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Getty Grant Program.
The Ford Motor Co. provided more than $300,000 for the exhibit's national tour. "Wrapped in Pride" has already been seen in Los Angeles. It will travel to Detroit, Anchorage, Chicago, Oakland and Atlanta after closing here on Jan. 2.
CAPTION: Kente cloth embellishes a jacket worn by former Washington mayor Marion Barry and displays the status of Ashanti chief Nana Akyanfuo Akowuah Dateh II.
CAPTION: Ghanaian President Jerry John Rawlings and the Clintons in kente last year.