Yoruba Textile – Lightning Strike by Duncan Clarke

Yoruba Textile –  Lightning Strike by Duncan Clarke

Why might a rich Yoruba lady living in southern Nigeria over a century ago choose to have zigzags embroidered on her expensive wrapper cloth? This is a unique piece with no similar examples known and no ethnographic context to explain it, so we can only speculate based on our knowledge of Nigerian textile history and the association of zigzag designs in other contexts in Yoruba visual culture.
The textile we are considering is a woman’s wrapper, worn around the waist on important occasions rather than for everyday use, woven by a female weaver using an upright single heddle loom. It is made up of two panels joined horizontally at the centre. And woven from finely hand spun indigo dyed cotton and pink, probably cochineal dyed, silk. For several centuries at least Nigerian weavers had obtained from this pink and magenta ‘waste’ silk from North Africa via the trans-Saharan caravan trade. Related (but plain not embroidered) cloths in a few museum collections, together with the use of silk, allow it to be dated to around the end of the nineteenth century or the first decade of the twentieth. The use of a repeated pattern of stripes in the weft, partially but not entirely concealed by the predominance of the warp, allows for a subtle check effect in the paler blue areas. The use of silk, along with the skill of the weaving and the high quality of the cotton thread signify that this was an expensive prestige piece for the use of a high status patron.
The same pink silk as the warp stripes in the cloth is used for some of the embroidery, along with three different shades of indigo dyed blue cotton. This embroidery is in the form of clusters of zigzags of various lengths, laid out to contrast in colour with the background. Perhaps unsurprisingly the placement of this decoration concentrates on the central area of the cloth that would be most visible in use. The similarity in the colours chosen, especially the rather unusual shade of pink, indicates that the embroidery was done quite soon after the cloth was woven.
Embroidery was not a domestic craft or pastime in West Africa. Instead it was a professional occupation of full or part-time male craftsmen, most if not all of who were Muslim. As a result the technique was applied only in specific contexts, mainly in the decoration of male high status gowns and trousers. Familiar patterns, mostly linked to Islamic amulet design, were passed on from one generation to the next, often in Koranic schools. Designs could be changed over time and new variations were introduced but these took place within an established repertoire and context.
In contrast our cloth shows an exceptional example of Yoruba embroidery in an unexpected context and an unfamiliar style. As this is the only known example to date we cannot know whether it represents a unique and idiosyncratic instance or whether its use was once more widespread. However a look at zigzag motifs in other aspects of Yoruba visual culture does suggest a possible explanation.
The Yoruba wooden sculpture above [source IMO DARA on Pinterest], called an arugba Sango, is a large bowl supported by group of figures, the most prominent of which is a kneeling female devotee. This bowl was part of the cult equipment of a shrine dedicated to the Yoruba orisa (deity), Shango, god of thunder and lightning, and would have contained a assortment of Neolithic stone axe heads that were believed to be the physical manifestation of thunderbolts. The painted zigzag designs adorning both the bowl and the kneeling woman depict the power of Shango in his manifestation as thunder and lightning. Female devotees played a important role in the cult of Shango and I would propose that the repetition of the zigzag design on our cloth is probably a sign that it was owned and worn by a senior woman who was an important follower of the Yoruba thunder deity.


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