Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Asante Textile Arts

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

Akan textile arts were key markers of status and dominion, while the act of weaving itself had mythological and ceremonial resonance. This was especially true of a type of cloth called kente (1993.384.2), which was linked in Akan mythology to the spider Ananse, the first weaver. Its production was subject to certain behavioral sanctions and weavers made offerings to their looms when these prohibitions were broken. Kente is woven in narrow strips by master weavers who use a complex technique called "floating weave" to achieve the intricate designs associated with this cloth. The strips are then sewn together, creating broad panels of striking beauty and compositional complexity. Because of its expense and symbolic associations, only persons of high rank wore kente, and certain patterns were reserved solely for the king's use. Originally, these cloths were made of white cotton with woven designs of indigo-dyed thread. By the seventeenth century, however, luxurious silks imported by European traders were incorporated, resulting in the vibrant and richly hued textiles that are so admired today.


Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University