The Shoowa people of the Congo region are renown for their raffia weavings, both as velvet-like squares in a dazzling array of geometric designs, and for their ceremonial dancing skirts. Traditionally men wove the ground structure to the squares, and the design was outlined by the women of the household, who embroidered the cut raffia tufts to create the velvet designs. A typical raffia square was said to take about a year to complete.
Their designs reflect motifs arising out of basket weaving, and scarification scars. Some design elements are named after the local African fauna (crocodile, spider), others after members of the aristocracy who commissioned particular designs.
The weavings served as dowries, currency, status symbols and were woven in their thousands throughout the region, some items typical of particular tribes. The earliest known to Europeans were collected in the 16th and 17th century, and they found particular favour amongst artists and intellectuals in the late 19th century.
The raffia skirts were woven by the same tribes folk who created the squares, and indeed some skirts incorporate raffia squares into their structure and design. Skirts were an essential element of ritual dance. Some were typically worn by men, others by women only, and some designs were reserved to the tribal aristocracy. The larger appliqué figures create the illusion of movement, others seem to talk to the wealth of African design variation. As items of clothing, they of course speak to the social hierarchies and divisions of their communities.
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