THE GEOMETRIC PATTERNS
The Kasaï velvet panels were sometimes sewn together and worn as an overskirt, but more often they were displayed or used as currency and markers of prestige, and even as royal paraphernalia. (They are still made today, mostly for collectors). Their immediately recognizable features include not only their visual softness and velvety texture, but also their abstract geometric designs. No panel shows a figurative representation, not even a stylized one. All are characterized by a varying but always high level of geometric complexity, achieved by composing, overlapping, connecting, flanking, combining, interlocking, or merging several simpler geometric patterns. In traditional Kuba culture, the more complex the design of a panel, the greater its economic and aesthetic value, and more desirable its use as a status symbol or a royal emblem.
Elizabeth Bennett and Niangi Batulukisi wrote in their essay on Kuba Textiles & Design: «The Kuba do not have a word for art… but they have one for design. Design or Bwiin is foundational to Kuba society. Almost all manufactured objects are elaborately decorated. Traditionally, within the Kuba Kingdom, the intricacy with which a person’s possessions were decorated reflected the status of the owner and indicated his or her social class. Rich ornamentation increased the prestige of the owner. The most elaborately decorated pieces, including textiles, were reserved for the King, his family, and the nobility. There were no better textiles.» (see Bibliography).
This quote is very interesting because it allows us to immediately discuss an important aspect.
The two authors, like many Western scholars, use the term decoration/décor/ornamentation very often with regard to Kuba art objects and especially Kuba textiles; some experts even make the Kuba tendency to hyperdecoration the main feature of their objects. In Western art history, when we talk about decoration, we imply a subtle but persistent distinction between fine art and décor. The latter is a kind of outer layer that does not touch or alter the essence of what it decorates, but merely embellishes it: a decoration or an element of ornament must please the eye and be aesthetically pleasing in order to fulfill its purpose. Decoration can be as airy and graceful as a whimsical curl in a Rococo rocaille, or as unexpected and astonishing as a dazzling combination of colors in an Art Deco tapestry. We might say that the frame of a 19th century French painting is beautifully decorated, but we would never use such terms to describe a Renoir painting. Wouldn’t we?
I do not wish to discuss here this distinction, which arose and developed within Western art and aesthetics. I will simply point out that it is completely inappropriate to use it when approaching a non-Western art form. Islamic geometric patterns, for example, are not merely decorative forms, but are, among other things, an elaborate path that leads the viewer to a transcendent reality. Thus, when discussing Kuba art and textiles, I will never use the terms decoration, décor, ornamentation, etc., and I will never imply the distinction on which these terms are based. Moreover, I will show that all Kuba geometric patterns, all of them indiscriminately, regardless of their degree of complexity, are not at all decorations on a piece of raffia cloth.