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Prestige Cloth

Prestige ClothThe Gallery has acquired a number of impressive African textiles in recent years, and an exceptional prestige cloth from Nigeria is a notable addition to the collection. Dating from the 19th century, this type of cloth is known as aṣọ-òkè in the Yoruba language, and it would have been worn around the waist as a wrapper. Previously owned by a noble family from Ondo, a city located about 30 miles south of Akure, the Ondo state capital in southeastern Yorubaland, the cloth was bought by the African textile scholar Duncan Clarke in 2018 and subsequently acquired by the Gallery in 2019.

To make this sumptuous garment, a master Yoruba weaver working on a horizontally oriented, double-heddle loom wove 10 individual lengths of cloth, which were then stitched together with alternating patterns. While men were responsible for the actual weaving of aṣọ-òkè, women played a crucial role in the early stages of production, assisting in the planting and harvesting of cotton, the spinning of the cotton into thread, and afterward, the dyeing and preparation of the threads for weaving. Both hand-spun and imported industrially manufactured cotton threads were used, and valuable alaari silk dyed magenta and green was introduced as a supplementary weft pattern, creating a contrast in texture and adding a dimensionality to the cloth. According to Clarke, the silk is most likely “waste silk” produced from the unspun silk fibers left over during North African or European textile production. These fibers were dyed in North Africa and exported via the trans-Saharan caravan trade to centers such as Kano, in northern Nigeria. Afterward, they were distributed farther south and eventually to Ondo, a weaving capital famed for its fine aṣọ-òkè dating from the 19th century through the 1960s.

The expansion of the textile economy under the regionally dominant Sokoto Caliphate in the mid-19th century, coupled with growing trade due to British influence beginning in the 1880s, led Muslim weavers to migrate south to Ondo from other Nigerian cities such as Iseyin and Ilorin. These migrants are credited with introducing the double-heddle loom to this region; indeed, the distinctive motif in silk of a rectangle with an arrowlike projection at one end, which runs across alternating strips and is framed by green and magenta triangles, is based on the form of a writing board that was used in Nigerian schools to teach Arabic and the Qur’an. The pattern speaks to this history of trade and exchange between Yoruba and Islamic cultures, and it might be read as a tacit pronouncement of both the weaver’s and the wearer’s religious beliefs.

According to the previous owners, the motif additionally refers to omolangidi, Nigerian dolls carved in wood, which were worn by young girls strapped to the back and held in place by a wrapper. The form of the doll, with a rectangular body surmounted by a head in profile and often depicted with an elaborate hairstyle, is also derived from the Qur’anic writing board, demonstrating the fusion—or rather, the interweaving—of indigenous Yoruba culture with Islam, and how patterns on an aṣọ-òkè may be imbued with additional meanings by their owners. The reference to omolangidi indicates that this cloth would have once been worn by a noblewoman. Important men in Yoruba society also wore aṣọ-òkè; in 1938 Edward Harland Duckworth, the Inspector of Education in colonial Nigeria at the time, photographed a reigning oba (king), the Akarigbo of Ijebu Remo, wearing a very similar cloth beneath his richly decorated bead-embroidered robe as an essential component of his ceremonial outfit. The fine weaving, use of rare materials, and inclusion of a motif associated with education all affirm the degree to which this cloth was considered a status symbol fit for kings and queens. Although aṣọ-òkè of this quality are no longer produced in Nigeria, such antique cloths continue to be worn by elders in Ondo during important ceremonies.

James Green

The Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Assistant Curator of African Art

Photo: Unidentified Yoruba artist, Prestige Cloth (Aṣọ-Òkè), Nigeria, 19th century. Hand-spun and imported industrial cotton with alaari silk. Yale University Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund

This article was first published in the Yale University Art Gallery Magazine (Fall 2019).