Kente cloth has an extensive catalogue of motifs and patterns, each carrying a different meaning or story. Some patterns are designed in tribute to a member of the Ashanti’s royal family or a high-ranking chief; others are named after an important historical event, natural phenomenon, a plant or a species in the animal kingdom. There is also a category of kente patterns named after Ahanti proverbs and folklore legends.
Both the design of the warp (in terms of composition and colour) and that of the weft have their own individual names. Only a small selection of weft motifs bears a visual resemblance to the subject that the name refers to (rainbows, snakes, scissors, hands, letters). However, the majority of the patterns are abstract and geometric; their symbolic meaning does not stem from any visual resemblance. Rather, the universe of kente patterns presents itself as a coded language consisting of signs and symbols, like Egyptian hieroglyph and other pictographic writing systems. The one difference being that the language of kente design does not adhere to any fixed vocabulary, syntax, grammar, or any other semiotic logic. The meaning of a cloth cannot be deciphered by ‘reading’ its separate motifs ‘as words or letters’. In this respect, kente patterns are purely decorative.
The one ‘fixed’ element is the symbolic meaning of the colours: Yellow and gold are royal colours, bringing to mind the power of kings and important chiefs but also of the presence of a divine power. Green, as in many other cultures, symbolises fertility, vitality and growth; blue represents love, female affection and tranquillity. Marron represents mother earth whereas red stands for blood and strong political and spiritual feelings. But again, the significance of the colours should not be determined the same way one would in Western iconography, but rather as an indication of a mood, or general state of mind.
One of Captain R.S. Rattray’s important contributions to the study of Ashanti kente weaving is his inventory of over two hundred different kente designs in his 1927 publication Art and Religion in Ashanti, listing their names, design specifics, followed by their symbolic and cultural meaning. He also had some pattern designs photographed and reproduced in full colour, which was a costly affair at the time. In the introduction to his nomenclature, he observes “[that] each design was standardised, and that they were not flights of colour-fancy run riot. Each pattern has its name and in many cases also represents the clan, social status or even sex of the wearer; or it may refer to some proverbial saying.”
Pattern number 2 in Rattray’s index for instance, is titled Sama. “Called after a man of that name, the son of one of the former chiefs at Bonwere, the village of the weavers” followed by a technical description: “The warp consists entirely of yellow threads, into which red, black, red, green, red, black, red, green weft has been woven, in bands about 6 cm. broad; the portion of the web here shown being where the red weft mingles with the yellow warp.”
Pattern no 6 is called Kofi Esono (Kofi, the Elephant). Rattray records that according to legend ‘an Ashanti celebrity who was presented with this cloth by the King of Ashanti and given permission to wear it.”
Pattern number 20 is called Adweneasa, which translates into ‘my skill is exhausted’, or ‘my ideas have come to an end’. According to Rattray, “it is one of the best-known patterns in Ashanti, and weavers who can make it are considered masters of their craft.” Only the Kings of Ashanti are allowed to wear this complex pattern.
Pattern number 92, consisting of a simpler weave of differently coloured stripes, titled Kradie, which means ‘the Satisfied Soul’ is named after an Ashanti proverb.
For some of the patterns, such as Adweneasa, Rattray consulted a Manchester company specialised in weaving to produce pattern drawings (in tapestry weaving known as cartoons) of several of the designs which are also reproduced in the book. Interestingly, the grid-like pattern drawings were Rattray’s idea. As far is as known, local weavers did not use schematic drawing like these to prepare their designs, but they used small samples or created them from memory.
Lost in translation
Since its publication, Rattray’s index of kente patterns has taken on a life of its own. As kente specialist Doran H. Ross recounts, when asked about a specific pattern it is not unusual to find a weaver in Bonwire today consult Rattray’s book, or similar tables like Kwaku Ofori-Ansa’s chart of kente names and motifs from 1993. Collecting and documenting information on vast selection of the patterns in writing, which previously only existed as part of oral culture, has been of huge significance to the anthropological and ethnographic study of kente fabrics. However, as Ross points out, some of its expressive energy and soul got lost in the process: “It must also be emphasised that there is a considerable fluidity in naming – a fluidity that was certainly more pronounced before names were recorded in writing. […] There is no question that written studies have increased the codification of kente names and eliminated some of the wonderful nuances that once differentiated one weaver’s verbal interpretation of a pattern from that of another – even if they agreed on an abbreviated name for the cloth.”
Continue reading: 05 Patterns (Some General Observations)