Behind the Scenes: Ukara Cloth

How do we decide what the next topic for our African textile research should be? It’s a mix of things: interest, serendipity, availability of source materials, and access to photographs.

We first came across a well-known Ukara print while researching Adire fabric. Some of the ideas were similar, in that there was a grid system drawn onto the fabric, with designs etched on, but Ukara allowed itself space to override the grid system to impose motifs of importance.

Ukara Cloth. Lowe Art Museum

Ukara Cloth. Lowe Art Museum

The cloth is used by Ekpe groups in South East Nigeria, or the Leopard Society, which are often termed as secret societies. Members commission fabric which incorporates signs of the leopard and various motifs from the Nsibidi ideographic alphabet. The designs are then embroidered using raffia onto white cloth, and then dyed with indigo.

A legal judgement in Nsibidi

A legal judgement in Nsibidi

There are thousands of Nsibidi ideograms, which were an early and widely used system across SouthEastern Nigeria, used to transmit knowledge, and to record legal judgements.

Contemporary Nsibidi Alphabet

Contemporary Nsibidi Alphabet

The alphabet has been resurrected in recent times, and is now available as downloadable computer graphics, with new symbols incorporated for contemporary use. The symbols have also been used by artists such as Victor Ekpuk.

Nsibidi Inspired Art by Victor Ekpuk

Nsibidi Inspired Art by Victor Ekpuk

From these gathered resources, supplemented by a visit to the British Museum library and an ever expanding library of books and articles on African textiles, we will devise a look we want to achieve, and discuss a design brief. More later, as we develop the Nsibidi idea further.

Quick fact

There are other African ideographic alphabets such as the Bagam script, which inspired the Toghal logo!

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