Kente cloth creates visual history lesson

The “Wrapped In Pride” Exhibit at the Museum of History and Art is an array of beautiful bold colors and rich African tradition and culture. The exhibit, which started in November, runs through Feb.25 and encompasses Ghanaian Kente (cloth woven by the Asante and Ewe people) and those of African American identity.

Suzi Jones, deputy director of the museum, said that many people have donated items and volunteered their time and talents on this endeavor that makes a connection between Africa and the United States.

“This exhibit is of national significance,” Jones said. “We try to brings different cultural things to the museum during the winter months so that the resident audience can see and learn about other cultures.”

There are many aspects to the “Wrapped In Pride” exhibit that was organized and produced by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the Newark Museum. Visitors get to see a glimpse of Kente tradition through an interactive computer program, continuous videos, hands on items, photographs, art and other media.             

In the exhibit, is also a painting of former president Bill Clinton in a Kenton wrap and a piece of Kente cloth that weighs 7.4 pounds and cost $310. The wall plaque gives information about how, if the cloth were unraveled, the thread would measure 64.61 miles. The cloth took four months to make.

Local residents also donated Kente items that they use to accent their lives to the exhibit.

One of those ways the exhibit shows that Kente cloth is also used is in framing. Americans use Kente cloth as a framing device, as seen on the quilt by Los Angeles quilt maker Dorothy Taylor, who made one in 1997 as a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of 926 pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee Army Flying School from 1942 to 1946. African Americans in Images of the airmen were transferred from a book titled ”The Lonely Eagle.”

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This exhibit is very user friendly and easy to maneuver around. Unlike other exhibits, this one has pieces that patrons are encouraged to touch. For those who want to be given educated instruction, the museum has tours that give visitors lessons on Kente. However, if you are not interested in the tour and just want to see the exhibit on your own, there are explanations of everything being displayed on the walls or near the exhibit pieces.          

Television screens in three separate locations of the exhibit show films of weavers making the cloth, what looks like a parade and Abena P.A. Busia-professor from Rutger's University who discusses her recollections of Kente in her family.

Being that this exhibit is to inform the public, the museum has also hosted other events in conjunction with it such as Kwanzaa and Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrations; weaving demonstrations and workshops by master Kente weaver Samuel Cophie and his son, Bempa; slide presentations; drumming; storytelling by Diane Ferlatte, a African American storyteller and a gospel and soul food luncheon.

Elizabeth Carew knew that an African Fashion show would be the icing on the cake for the exhibit.

“I was looking for something to get people together,” she said. “(Since) wrapped in pride continues through February, I thought the fashion show would make it richer.”

The fashion show, which was held on Saturday in the museum atrium, showcased the designs of African designer Akouvai Slater. Slater who is from Togo, West Africa, has been designing for over 20 years and is now based in Los Angeles. One of her professional jobs involved designing Lion King garments for a 1997 award show.

Slater said she got into professional designing because people liked her garments. Even though she studied fashion design in Paris, she said her designs don't convey that. “My designs come naturally for me.” she said. “I don't think I do what I learned in school. I wake up and the designs are there. I get ideas everywhere, even in the toilet.”

Her collection has fashions that include casual, contemporary, evening wear and wedding attire. She uses cotton, lace, taffeta, silk and chiffon in her designs. Thus, her collection might be considered expensive to the untrained or uneducated eye. Pieces in her collection range from $120 to $450.

“I design clothes that can be worn for every occasion. I work with prints that are easy to maintain. They can be washed and the colors stay bright. They don't need ironing. You let them sit out and the fabric will relax. I design classy elegant things that must be worn with attitude,” Slater said.

Gail Morrison had that attitude as she modeled several pieces from Slater's collection. “I think the clothes are beautiful and they are so comfortable,” Morrison said.

The show lasted about an hour and a half and Thelma Snow-Jackson, museum volunteer and President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority was the mistress of ceremony. Intermission Jazz was provided by Greg Tyler and Ira Steller.