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Cloth (Ukara)

Arts of Africa

Ukara are made exclusively for members of the Ekpe society, an interethnic men’s association found throughout southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon. The designs are part of a dynamic language known as nsibidi, which uses image and gestural performance to communicate knowledge guarded by society members. Ukara cloths are made for a specific individual, who chooses designs of personal significance.

To make ukara, artists stich designs onto cotton cloth in raffia and then dip the cloth multiple times in indigo until it reaches the desired shade of blue. The sturdy raffia prevents the indigo from penetrating to the cotton underneath, leaving white patterns visible when the raffia is removed. Some remnants of raffia can be seen on this cloth.
CULTURE Igbo
MEDIUM Cotton, indigo
DATES 20th century
DIMENSIONS 60 × 79 × 1/16 in. (152.4 × 200.7 × 0.2 cm)
COLLECTIONS Arts of Africa
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
EXHIBITIONS
ACCESSION NUMBER 1990.132.6
CREDIT LINE Purchased with funds given by Frieda and Milton F. Rosenthal
CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Stitch-resist, indigo-dyed blue and white patterned commericial cotton. Patterns are known genertically as Nsibidi and refer to important objects and secret knowledge kept by Ekpe (Leopard) society members. Patterns include the leopard, double gong, hand, tortoise. Raffia is used to stitch resist pattern; cloth is then dyed in indigo; and the raffia removed. Some evidence of raffia remains on this cloth. Ukara clothes are used by Ekpe Society members as wrappers, as hangings, and in funerals. Pieces of cloth are joined by machine stitching; unfinished hems.
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