July 8, 2015

At the Hood: The Secret Patterns of Ukara Cloth

 Igbo People, Nigeria; Giant ukara, used for a backdrop in an Ekpe lodge; ca early 2000s; 
indigo dyed cotton, 233 x 78 in.
All works in this post are made in the past 30 or 40 years; all are in the collection of 
Professor Eli Bentor of Appalachian State University. 

Just like some other animals––bowerbirds, for instance, where the males decorate their nests to attract females––humans have a deep aesthetic sense. Therefore, many objects made for practical or ceremonial use are beautiful, which enhances their meaning and worth. There is currently a show of stunning Ukara indigo dyed cloth at the Hood Museum of Art, made for the Ekpe male secret society of Nigeria and Cameroon. Whether very large, like the backdrop cloth above, or smaller, meant to be tied around the hips, their designs are based on a grid of abstract or imagist patterns.

The designs are called nsibidi, and their meanings are secret, known only to members of the society. They are full of energetic life, enhanced by the breaking of the grid by images of animals, reptiles, and human figures.

Here is a smaller piece that emphasizes squares filled with geometric patterns. A small leopard overflows his square, changing the regular rhythm.

A very interesting part of the story of this cloth is that it is not made by members of the Ekpe society, but is commissioned and produced in a distant village by the Ezillo people. The drawing of the patterns on the industrially produced cotton is done by an Ezillo man, based on a grid.

The cloth is then handed on to another man who sews the designs using raffia.

The job of indigo dyeing, which is a complex process, is done by women.

The raffia is then removed, often by young people; this is not a job that is for only men or women. Where the cloth was tied, white patterns are left, a kind of resist dyeing. You can see the wrinkled texture of the cloth where it was bound with raffia.

Although I know nothing of the meanings conveyed by these cloths, I appreciate them as marvelous objects whose simple patterns join in a powerfully rhythmic way.

Their combinations of geometry and image speak to essentials in life and in how we see the world; repetitive pattern seems to be the heartbeat of art.


  1. These patterns remind me of zentangles. Quite arresting. I want to sit and look at the patterns and wonder the meanings. A lot of work to create these cloths.

    1. I had to look up zentangles. Those are much more complex and organic in their shapes; I don't really see a relationship. But I'm glad you enjoy looking at the Ukara cloths.

  2. Lots to savor here, Altoon. Thank you for the in-depth and visually arresting account.

  3. This was a revelation. Thanks so much for sharing. I thought I knew a fair amount about African textiles but much of this was new to me. The drawing and the undyed piece really spoke to me, perhaps because they were both so unfamiliar. Another example, as well, of the incredible things one can see and learn in a visit to a smaller museum. My sister lives in Erie, PA and we have seen many wonderful works on our visits.

    1. I'm so glad to be able to share these with you, Ms. Wis. A visit to the Hood Museum is often quite inspiring.

  4. Replies
    1. thanks so much, meta; I'm pleased you like the work in this post.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. The ukara cloth and its inscriptions could be seen as evoking both the multifarious scope of the universe and the cognitive processes through which this complexity is apprehended and depicted.

    This scope of being integrates human beings, animals and spirits, all depicted on the cloth.

    The cognitive processes are suggested in the combination of figural and abstract forms that shape the images on the cloth as well as by the balance of horizontal and vertical structure that configures the sequence of forms.

    The figural forms could be understood in terms of the basic data of sense perception and the ideas developed from this template while the abstract shapes may suggest conceptual distillation from sense perception, perhaps at a higher level of abstraction than the concepts suggested by the figural forms.

    1. Thank you for this elucidated comment, Oluwatoyin. It brings a deeper understanding to these works.

    2. Thanks,Altoon Sultan.

      As I study the works further, I would like to post my insights here.