The Kasai pillow is a one-of-a-kind appliqued and embroidered patchwork pillow made from raffia Kuba cloth and handwoven by Congolese refugees living in Kenya. Each piece of Kuba cloth is unique as the maker tells her own story through her stitching and placement of pattern. The Kuba cloth is amazing and entirely created by hand.
21” x 16” (53.3 cm x 40.6 cm)
Front - raffia
Back - polyester blend, in ecru
Polyester pillow insert
Fabric origin: Congolese makers in Kenya
Flatwoven Kuba cloth is richly distinctive and was first discovered when, at the end of the 15th century Portuguese explorers reached the coastline of what is now the Congo and Angola. The time consuming process of making the cloth still remains the same. Both men and women are involved in the production of the fabric. First, leaves are gathered from the raffia tree and dyed in earth-tone colors, using mud, indigo, or substances from the Camwood tree. The raffia is softened by rubbing the fiber in their hands or gently pounding the raffia to make it easier for weaving. After the base cloth is finished, the women begin to embellish the fabric using techniques such as applique, reverse applique, embroidery, and patchwork. Base cloths can be three to five yards long with each small appliqued panel different from the next. It is said that the women make up the designs as they go and that their embroidery is done from memory, using raffia threads pulled from the cloth. Appliqué pattern patches are arranged to tell a story, and each patch is symbolic.
This particular pillow combines applique with reverse patchwork in natural and black stripes, with seams folded and hemmed on the top surface. Two zig-zag embroidered squares add the third design dimension to this pillow. I left the pillow unlined so the owner could see the complexity of this handwork from the inside. It is a common characteristic to have fraying ends on Kuba cloth. This cloth is truly a work of art in a most primitive form.
The Kuba cloths I used were made by Congolese refugees living in Kenya. I acquired them when I was visiting a fair trade organization called Salom in Nairobi, Kenya. The organization was supporting a group of refugees by buying their Kuba cloth and using it in bags and other products. Two pieces that I own have been hanging on my living room walls for several years and I continue to appreciate them as a true art form.