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NewsJun 12, 2023

Discovering Ghana's Kente cloth

Written by Derrick Oduro
Image of Kente cloth

Derrick Oduro Provisional RGD introduces us to Kente cloth, traditionally used in Ghana as a form of communication for the community.

Multiple Kente cloths The roots of Kente cloth may go back as far as 1000 B.C.E. to textile production of the Akan people of the Ivory Coast and the Ewe people of South-eastern Ghana (Photo by Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images)

The word ‘Kente’ comes from ‘Kenten’ in Akan language (Asante dialect), meaning basket-like design and pattern. In Ghana, Kente is also referred to as "Nwentoma" which simply means woven cloth. This cloth, which is now famous across the world, is a visual representation of the history, philosophy, ethics and values of the African diaspora.

Kente cloth is said to have originated in the 17th century in a town called Bonwire in the Asante region of Ghana. News of Kente was reported to Asantehene Osei Tutu, the first ruler of the Asante kingdom, and Bonwire Kente Weaving Centre soon became a popular destination for the Ashanti people to learn the art of Kente weaving. Since its creation, Kente has evolved — it was made with silk in the olden days, however, to increase affordability it is now mixed with cotton. While many new communication designs have been developed, many of the original weaving patterns are retained.

On the left, men wearing kente at the Kente Cloth Festival in Kpetoe (country). On the right, women wearing kente at the Kente Cloth Festival in Kpetoe (country). Men (left) and women (right) wearing kente at the Kente Cloth Festival in Kpetoe (country), September 2005 (photos by John Nash, CC BY-NC 2.0).

Each of the colours of the intricate weave have specific meanings. The colour red used in Kente represents the blood of those who died, green symbolizes the country's mineral wealth; blue is for peace, love and harmony; purple/maroon represents mother earth healing, femininity and protection from evil; white symbolizes purity, cleansing rites and festive occasions; black represents spiritual awareness and the union of the great ancestors who paved the way for future generations. Therefore, Kente is a historical and cultural representation of communication through design.

With options for single, double and triple weave, Kente is more than just a fabric. It is easily and distinctively identified internationally to speak great cultural dialogues amongst diverse communities. Kente can be worn by both men and women and is also found in Asante shrines on the deities or abosom marking its spiritual power. Today, the patterns are widely used in modern fashion styles for shirts, pants, hats and ties. Kente can also be seen in the design of academic stoles for graduation ceremonies or festive events.

Still image from Marvel's Black Panther, showing the late actor Chadwick Boseman wearing Kente Source:

The late actor Chadwick Boseman who played Black Panther, the first official African American superhero, can be seen wearing Kente in the picture above. He helped raise awareness of African culture on a larger platform with children and adults. Celebrities including Viola Davis, Beyoncé, Cardi B, Solange, Lupita Nyong’o and Kendrick Lamar have embraced Kente clothing styles on occasions to celebrate their blackness and culture.

Handbag designed with Kente print This is an example of how Kente print bag would be designed as an accessory,1990s (photo by Huzzah Vintage, CC BY-NC 2.0).

While Kente is worn in Ghana on special occasions with highly specialized brands launched by master weavers, it has now been embraced globally for its rich and vibrant traditional fabric and distinctive patterns. Personally, as a Canadian-Ghanaian, I find Kente clothing beautiful and truly appreciate its rich textures and patterns, bright colours and all the various handmade designs. Typically I would wear a matching set or just an intricate African print shirt with black pants or jeans with a pair of sandals or loafers for special occasions such as a party with friends or a traditional wedding. I always end up receiving compliments from the people who are in awe of the weave and it is also a great conversation starter. Dressing up for me all comes down to mood and what I am feeling for the day. Although I don’t often wear Kente clothing, I would love to incorporate it into my everyday wardrobe and represent my culture. It would great to see Kente fashions being highlighted specifically on Africans and people in the diaspora so that it becomes the norm. You can purchase it in Toronto at the annual Afrofest in July which celebrates African culture, music, food and fashion. The Afropunk Festival which takes place in Brooklyn, New York, on August 26 and 27 in 2023, also sells Kente clothing. The Jollof rice, a popular dish which originated in Senegal and popular across Western Africa is a must-try at this event. Kente is also available to purchase at African Textile and Clothing Center in Toronto (with online option) and on Etsy

Below are some resources to learn more about Kente:

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