Cultures & Traditions
Kente from Ghana is undoubtedly the best-known African textile in the world. K__ente gained worldwide attention in 1957 when Kwame Nkrumah, then president of Ghana, the first independent country in sub-Saharan Africa, wore it for his official portraits during an official visit to the United States. Kente cloth subsequently became a symbol of pan-African identity and a symbol of Black Pride. A half century later, handwoven kente remains a successful export product that is used as-is or to make Western style clothing and accessories. Among the Asante, kente is a prestigious cloth that has traditionally been worn by kings and chiefs. The king, who reserves certain kente designs for himself, can grant the privilege to others. Kings wear kente made of silk, rayon, or cotton on state occasions, are transported to events in kente-covered palanquins, and shielded from the sun under giant umbrellas decorated with kente accents. Asante kings are also traditionally buried in this prestigious cloth.
Kente has probably been woven in Ghana since at least the 16th century, when cotton yarns dyed with natural indigo were used. Oral traditions credit a spider’s web-making with having inspired two hunters to create the first kente. Silk kente dates from about the 18th century, as indicated by the first published account by a Danish factor to the court of King Opoku Ware I. The factor reported that the African weavers unraveled imported taffeta cloth to obtain the silk threads, which they wove into cloth.
Osei Tutu I, the first king of the Asante, reserved the cloth for royals. Over time, with greater varieties of colors and materials, kente became accessible to more of the population. There are over three-hundred warp and weft patterns, each of which has a name derived from the names of kings and queen mothers, historical events, family lineage, or proverbs. Silk kente with named designs continue to be limited to Asante elites. These cloths (called wrappers because of the way they are worn) are fashionable for both men and women. For men, a kente wrapper circles the body and may drape over a shoulder like a toga. Women’s kente include two-piece garments or modern, peplum-style long dresses.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 294-295.
Roslyn Walker, The Power of Gold: Asante Royal Regalia from Ghana, Label text, 2018.
- The African American Intellectual History Society
Learn more about the cultural significance of kente cloth for the African diaspora.