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'aso oke' textile, by The Yoruba People


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About the artwork

Black History Month

Unraveling the threads of history: Yoruba 'aso oke' textile

The Yoruba have been a mainly urban people for centuries, living in large towns administered by a king (the Oba) and his court. Each town has a market and supports craft associations including the weavers. Oje market near the Yoruba city of Ibadan is famous for its cloth 'fairs' and attracts cloth traders from all over West Africa.

'Aso oke' (literally 'top cloth') is worn by Yoruba men and women throughout southwestern Nigeria on special occasions like weddings, naming ceremonies and religious festivals. Women wear the cloth in the form of a wraparound skirt called 'iro', a head tie ('gele') and 'iborun', a strip of cloth like the 'gele' worn over the shoulder or tied round the waist. Men wear suits of 'aso oke' cloth consisting of a large gown ('agbada') and trousers ('sokoto').

'Aso oke' is hand woven by men on the Yoruba version of the West African double-heddle narrow loom. To make one 'aso oke' the weaver weaves a 40-foot strip of cloth. This is then given to a tailor who cuts it into equal length pieces and sews them together to make the full cloth.

The woven designs on this cloth show wooden writing boards used especially by the Hausa of northern Nigeria to practice writing verses from the Qur'an. In fact this design is said to have a Hausa origin. The Hausa are one of the largest and most widespread of African peoples, with trading and craft-producing communities settled in towns and cities throughout much of West Africa. It was also Hausa traders who would have provided the magenta coloured silk that you can see in this 'aso oke'. Magenta-coloured waste silk from Tunisian, Italian and French looms was one of the products transported across the Sahara from Tunisia and Libya to the Hausa city of Kano in the 19th century. Imported waste silk was spun and woven in the same way as wild silk and the locally grown cotton and it added to the prestige and expense of the completed 'aso oke'. Locally spun and dyed indigo cotton thread was also expensive as it was sometimes dyed up to fourteen times in order to get the desired deep blue colour. Today expensive silk and indigo threads are often replaced by shiny metallic lurex from Japan and brightly coloured rayon threads.

Black History Month

Unraveling the threads of history: Yoruba 'aso oke' textile

Although looms and weaving have ancient origins in Africa, technical innovations and demand for clothing grew with the spread of Islam in West Africa. Trading cities like Timbuktu and Jenne (on the upper Niger River) and Kano in northern Nigeria became centres of Islamic cosmopolitan activity from the 13th century. Islam arrived in West Africa along the cross-Saharan trade routes from North Africa and initially spread only among trader networks and the ruling classes. Islam became much more widespread in Nigeria during the early 1800s when an Islamic revolutionary movement ('jihad') overthrew existing political structures and established a powerful centralised state - the Sokoto Caliphate. This incorporated Hausa, Nupe and northern Yoruba emirates. Patterns of tribute, trade and gift exchange within the Caliphate linked a vast area across ethnic divisions. This helped to spread Hausa industries, including weaving techniques and designs.

William Lever acquired this 'aso oke' cloth at some point between 1911 and 1922. He only purchased a few African artefacts himself on his numerous travels. Most were bought for him by intermediaries, including dealers and missionaries. His collecting usually followed his commercial interests and his travelling was always linked with potential business opportunities. From the beginning of the 20th century Lever looked to Africa for supplies of palm oil for his soap factories. In the 1920s he applied to the British colonial authorities in Nigeria for land to establish oil-palm plantations there. His application was rejected, partly out of fear of opposition by the indigenous population to appropriation of their land. Lever later established plantations in Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). The Belgian Congo had harsher land and labour policies favourable to the establishment of European plantations.