Adinkra Cloth: Symbols to Tell a Story

In the U.S., we don’t usually wear our hopes, dreams and wishes on our clothes. Well, except for when you want your sports team to win! We don’t weave talismans and protections into our fabric, even when we feel vulnerable to things that affect us. Should we? There is a way to do it without being obvious. Like, you don’t have to print “I want the winning lottery ticket” on a T-shirt. You can use symbols to tell your story. And the combination of symbols can be beautiful. We can learn from how other cultures weave meaningful stories into their fabrics, like the Adinkra cloth of Ghana.

Here is Adinkra cloth from the Smithsonian:

Adinkra Cloth from Smithsonian

From Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco:

Adinkra Cloth from Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco

From Hamill Gallery:

Adinkra Cloth from Hamill Gallery

The black patterns are printed, and the colorful areas are made with embroidered threads. Here’s a close-up of the cloth from Hamill Gallery, so you can see the print and embroidery:

Adrinka Cloth Closeup from Hamill Gallery

Adinkra cloths have caught my eye for awhile — the lively mixes of patterns! — and I got curious to learn more and do a post about them.

These symbols are from the Akan culture in Ghana. They use these Adinkra symbols to decorate things like wood objects, pottery, jewelry and fabric. Traditionally these designs were reserved for the Asante kings, but now more people in Akan culture wear the cloth for important occasions.

Here you see that drawing a comb over the fabric creates lines:

creating-andrika-cloth

Just like with the more popular mud cloth and kuba cloth, the symbols in Adinkra cloth have meanings, Some symbols represent more complex ideas like proverbs and folk tales, others show simple images like plants. Master artisans and elders know how to match the symbols into combinations that tell stories. From Aaron Mobley Heart of Afrika Designs, here is a chart showing the meanings of many symbols – click here or click on the image to open a bigger picture where you can read the words:

aaron-mobley-heart-of-afrika-designs-adinkra-symbol-meanings

The symbols are pressed into cloth with ink and stamps. The stamps are carved from gourds:

Adinkra Stamps Carved from Guords

Oh my! If I spotted these on the roadside while traveling through Ghana! From Flickr:

Adinkra Cloth Stamps in Ghana Flickr

 

If you’d like to use these symbols, the graphics at Adinkra.org were made for you to use for personal, non-profit and educational purposes. Save them and open them in a graphics program. Create art and digital fabric designs. Print them and transfer the images onto fabric or wood. You can carve your own printing blocks in foam.

If you were to choose Adinkra symbols to tell the story of your life, or your hopes and wishes, which would you choose?

Right now, I would choose:

Story of My Current Life Andikra Symbols

These symbolize things I’m dealing with right now:

  • Adaptability
  • Transformation
  • Initiative, Dynamism
  • Humility, Strength
  • Hardiness, Toughness, Perseverance
  • Unity, Human Relations
  • Support, Cooperation

Yeah, heavy stuff. But I have some work to do to change some things in my life. I wonder what these symbols would look like if they were made into a cloth! Maybe we will see …

 



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