In the art traditions of pre-colonial Africa male and female roles were usually clearly defined. In sub-Saharan Africa sculptors in wood and metal were almost invariably male, while in most but not all areas potters were women. With weaving the picture is more complex. Until very recently the double-heddle narrow strip loom was used only by men, as were certain types of single heddle loom, such as ground looms and Central African raffia looms. There was however a large area extending from parts of Togo, across Benin and Nigeria into western Cameroon where women wove, using single heddle looms mounted upright against a house wall. It seems likely that this is an ancient technique in the region, although it may have spread up into northern Nigeria only in the early nineteenth century. Fragments of raffia fibre cloth that may have been woven on this kind of loom uncovered at Igbo Ukwu in southeast Nigeria were dated to the C9th AD. In the C16th and later Portuguese slave traders bought huge numbers of indigo dyed cloths woven on these looms from the Ijebu and Benin for sale in Congo, Gold Coast and even Brazil. In the C19th the north eastern Yoruba and their neighbours wove large quantities of cloths which were traded to the north. Among the central Oyo Yoruba and in northern Nigeria women’s weaving overlapped with that of men using the double-heddle loom, but in other districts, in particular among the Igbo in eastern Nigeria women were the only weavers.
In the years since the 1950s this kind of weaving has declined drastically in both the Yoruba and Igbo speaking regions of Nigeria, partly because it is an extremely slow and laborious process, but also because women now have wider opportunities for trading, education and other careers. In the south of Nigeria it only survives today on a very small scale in a few areas where local specialisations are still in demand, notably in the Yoruba town of Ijebu-Ode, and far to the east in the Igbo village of Akwete. In central and northern Nigeria, where there has been less development, the picture is brighter. There are still a relatively large number of women using these looms in the Ebira town of Okene, the Nupe capital Bida, and in Hausa cities, particularly Kano. Although these are largely traditions in decline (including in Okene in the past few years,) fine examples of older cloths can still be found, and where the weaving continues, as in Akwete, some very high quality new cloths are woven for local use.
Ijebu-Ode: The capital of the ancient Yoruba speaking kingdom of Ijebu, its women weavers produce a distinctive style of highly ornate cloth known as aso olona, cloth with decorations or art. Bands of weft float decoration representing designs such as crocodile, frog, elephant, and koran board, are alternated with bands of shaggy pile weave. These cloths are worn as insignia of office by members of a once powerful association of elders known as Oshugbo (or Ogboni). The earliest known example of this type of cloth, in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, dates from as early as 1790. The cloths were once traded along the coastal lagoons to the Niger delta region where they became known as ikakibite or “tortoise cloth” and highly prized in local rituals. Akwete Igbo women weavers then produced similar designs, although they are clearly distinguishable by the wider panels woven.
Akwete: This small town just north of the city of Port Harcourt is one of the last centres of a once much wider tradition of Igbo women’s weaving. It is famous throughout eastern Nigeria for the quality of the cloths produced there which are highly prized for the Igbo women’s ceremonial dress known as “Up and Down”, in which two cloths are wrapped around the body, one at the waist, the other under the arms. Akwete women use a uniquely wide version of the loom, allowing a single width of cloth to form a women’s wrapper. Among the huge range of designs produced is a version of the Ijebu aso olona, which they have woven since at least the C19th for sale to the Ijaw people of the Niger Delta to the south.
Nupe: the Nupe live along the river Niger in central Nigeria, around their capital of Bida. Bida was once the capital of a Fulani-ruled emirate renowned in West Africa for its craft-works, which include decorative brass casting, embroidery, and glass bead making, as well as both men’s and women’s weaving. Islam is now the dominant religion in the town, and women weave hidden in the passageways of labyrinthine mud-walled compounds to which non-family men are forbidden entrance. Among the textiles they wove in the past are elaborate marriage cloths known as “duna”, and some beautiful predominantly red wrapper cloths.
Eastern Yoruba: Among Yoruba and Yoruba related peoples such as the Igbomina, Ekiti, Yagba, and Bunu, there was relatively little of the male narrow strip aso oke weaving (which was primarily associated with the Oyo Yoruba.) Instead large numbers of women wove predominantly indigo-dyed wrapper cloths, both for domestic use and for trade. Aside from the superb accounts of Bunu weaving by Renne there is little documentation of the wide variety of indigo cloths that were woven in this region. It is a particular interest on mine at the moment and we are encountering numerous previously unrecorded local styles as we reach new areas. Today there is very little weaving in the area, with perhaps one or two elderly ladies still active in each area.
Northern Edo: the Northern or Akoko Edo are a culturally diverse range of peoples living in small villages to the south and west of the town of Okene. Alongside a lot of very obscure and localised traditions of cloth decoration, they wove fine indigo wrappers from hand-spun cotton. The picture below (taken in the 1960s) shows senior women from the royal family in a small village called Somorika wearing locally woven cloths, some of which mix hand spun cotton with white linen-like thread called “ebase” obtained from tree bark.
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