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    Coveted Cloths
by Fred Stern
Dida textile at Robertson African Art
Dida textile at Robertson African Art
Dida textile from David Lantz
Kuba cloth at Pace Primitive
Kuba cloth at Pace Primitive
Detail of Yoruba textile at Pace Primitive
Yoruba cloth at Pace Primitive
Egungun textile at Robertson African Art
Fante, Asafo appiquéd flag at Robertson African Art
This week is an enchanting if frantic one in the African textiles market. Collectors and dealers who specialize in these precious goods have assembled for the International Tribal Antiques Show. The fair is taking place for the first time at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 67th Street -- a sure sign tribal antiques have arrived. (Traditionally it was held at the smaller downtown armory). Also taking place this week is the London Textile Show, and Sotheby's is holding its tribal art auctions.

African textiles have long been coveted by the Western world. In the 17th century, Portuguese traders brought the prized cloths from Sub-Saharan Africa to patricians in Lisbon and Oporto. The textiles were appreciated for their astonishingly varied patterns as well as for textures that were as fancy as any fine weaving from the West.

Artists have found inspiration in African fabrics. Like tribal masks and carvings, European modernists saw a mystical message in the mesmerizing woven patterns. Painters such as Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso, Klimt and Klee bought African textiles and adapted their motifs.

But earlier, when art museums began collecting African art, they preferred to concentrate on masks, sculpture and ivory. It remained for the ethnographic museums to be the pioneers of textile collecting.

How many textiles from that early period survive? "Not too many," says David M. Lantz, whose gallery is at 22 East 21st Street in New York. "The intense African climate precludes the survival of many of the older textiles. And textiles get used up, especially if they are worn as clothing, which most of them are," he said. "Sometimes, however, tribal kings put away their favorite textiles in dry caves. These are the ones we now have."

Textiles made by the Dida people of the Ivory Coast are quite rare, and on the wanted list of many museums because they are no longer made. Mostly used for ceremonial dances, the gauzy, vibrantly colored fabric is made of raffia palm fiber, dyed and re-dyed in the resist dye mode. The woman's cloth is tubular, the men's singular and woven in rectangles. The Dida do not sculpt, and consider their fabrics their prime treasures. Prices range from $1,000 for smaller pieces to $5,000 for the bigger ones, according to Eric Robertson of Robertson African Arts., whose gallery is at 36 West 22nd Street in New York.

The majority of the textiles we see today date from the 1930s to the '60s. But of course there are also some from the early parts of this century. Two tribes -- the Kuba and the Yoruba -- account for the majority of cloths on the market.

The Kuba tribe lives in the former Belgian Congo, which was recently called Zaire and is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kubaware consists of skirts as well as rectangular panels worn at dance functions. Though multicolored, a predominately cocoa hue prevails. Their abstract patterning is intriguing to an artist's eye. "Don't read too many mystical or concealed meanings into the patterns. As far as we know the designs are for the most part purely decorative," says Lantz, who has one of the largest stocks of Kuba textiles in the world.

Usually, the panels are sized between 20 by 30 inches, but some can be as long as 20 feet. The fabric is also made from the leaves of the raffia palm. The fibers are bleached and pounded into a smooth mash, giving the finished cloth the consistency of linen. To enhance the appearance and feel of the fabric, appliqué and embroidery are liberally used. Dyes create the most intricate patterns. Prices for Kuba squares range as low as $1,000 but progress to within the neighborhood of $5,000. Skirts run considerably higher and reach $30,000.

The Yoruba is one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa and resides principally in Nigeria and in the Benin Republic or Togo. Older Yoruban styles of weaving such as etu, sayan and alaari have now been replaced by aso oke, a very colorful multi-weave style that is handspun. Cotton with silk weft floats usually replaces earlier raffia palm constructions. These are still in fashion for ceremonial wear, and for gift-giving between the mothers of brides and bridegrooms.

A variety of looms were used in constructing these Yoruba textiles, several of which are on view at Pace Primitive, 32 E. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10022 and at Robertson African Art. Men as well as women did the weaving on single-heddle and double-heddle looms. "While many of the patterns are traditional," says Robertson, "the pattern may also be varied in keeping with the weaver's preference and vision." Prices for Yoruba textiles range into the thousands.

In the early 20th century the Yoruba used patchwork and appliqué to enhance pattern and color, as is evident in egungun pieces. Egungun, ceremonial costumes worn by dancers, were first made by the Dahomey people in what is now called the People's Republic of Benin . The figures depicted on the costumes have spiritual significance, usually specific to the dancer and ceremony.

Appliqué is also common in Ghana, particularly in Fante "fighting flags" on imported cotton. The designs indicate tribal and other affiliations. The Union Jack in the upper left hand corner of one indicates that this Fante was made prior to the independence of Ghana in 1957.

An unusual collecting area African textiles may be, but a look at these sumptuous pieces will convince any art-lover of their value.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.