Men were in charge of weaving and women were mainly responsible for embellishment of the woven pieces - of making cut pile sections, applying surface design details, appliquéing contrasting colors on top of the base cloth to create abstracted, geometric designs and then constructing garments out of the cloth like hats, wraps, belts, ceremonial skirts and cloths for trade.
Image Credit: Digital Collections, The New York Public Library
2. Most textiles are a variation on rectangular or square pieces of woven raffia fiber enhanced by geometric designs executed in linear embroidery in flat-stitch and cut-pile stitching, the latter creating surfaces resembling velvet. This bold pattern, dated to 1912‑1942, shows how Kuba fabrics reinforced a strong influence by keeping the human eye engaged.
Image Credit: The Baltimore Museum of Art
3. Women’s ceremonial overskirt from the 20th century. Made by the Bushong people.
Image Credit: The Textile Museum and The George Washington University Museum.
4. Basketwork boxes decorated with interlocking geometric patterns were produced in the Congolese region and adjacent Angola well into the 20th century. They were used for storing luxury wares like raffia textiles and ivory accessories and sometimes, even exported to Europe as early as the mid-17th century - thus, finding their way into the collections of rich aristocrats.
Image Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago
5. Ngombe Semi-Reclining Royal Chair, D. R. Congo.
Kuban art forms are one of the most highly developed of all African traditions. Objects like stools, chairs, and thrones were generally reserved for royalties. Often, the use of stools and chairs were also the privilege of the community’s oldest person. This bulky chair, dominated by stacks of brass all around it, suggests that it belonged to a distinguished individual, or to a chief. Among Kuban art works - the chief's chair is regarded as a symbol of power.
Text & Image Credit: Dafco Gallery
6. A wooden chalice made by a Kuban artist featuring complex, interlocking design resembling Kuba cloth patterning
Image Credit: University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art
7. Kuban textiles also influenced internationally renowned artists of the 20th century like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. Matisse is seen here in this photograph, with a large collection displayed behind him in his studio.
Image Credit: Bronwen Evans https://www.contemporary-african-art.com/kuba-cloth.html
8. After Europeans arrived in the Kuba kingdom in the late 19th century, various objects were shipped back to the colonising countries - many of which ended up in Parisian flea markets (Matisse’s favourite location for purchasing new collectibles). Having developed an admiration for these objects more for their formal properties than their cultural significance, he described them as ‘African velvets’ and appreciated them for ‘the mystery of their instinctive geometry’. He wrote that he often sat staring at them for long periods of time, “waiting for something to come to me”. These patterns might have inspired the zig-zags of this painting of his – expanding and distorting the space on the canvas.
Image: Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947 by Henri Matisse, Courtesy of www.henrimatisse.org
The box of spices has made its way into kitchens all around the world. Offering an assortment of flavours, aromas and defining cooking styles and cuisines in multiple countries - spices were not only used in cooking but were also believed to have medicinal properties. They have been around for centuries, were valuable commodities and traded dominantly. The world’s demand for spices grew throughout the Roman era and into the medieval period, shaped international trade routes, defined the world economy and at times, even incited wars. Even Ayurvedic teaching suggests maintaining a healthy life and keeping the three Doshas in balance and each spice in Ayurveda (traditional art of healing) has a specific effect on one or more of the doshas and helps prevent imbalances and diseases. Spices have thus been integral to shaping Indian gastronomy and it is impossible to imagine food being cooked without them.
1. Map by Haisam Hussein
Even though spices are easily accessible today, it should be noted how treacherous it was once, to discover and deal with them. Spice Routes were the oldest trade routes and got their names due to the fact that spices were the most prominent and profitable goods being traded on certain links as traders travelled far and wide - buying and selling goods from port to port, undertaking sea journeys and carrying vast amounts of wealth, ideas and information - resulting in the shared cultures that we experience today.
2. This 14th century painting shows the harvest of one of Kerala’s main trade items - Pepper, in Coilum, Kerala.
Historically, pepper was widely cultivated in the tropics of Southeast Asia and later became an important article of overland trade between India and Europe - being used as a medium of exchange. Tributes were levied in pepper in ancient Greece and Rome and in the Middle Ages, the Venetians and the Genoese became the main distributors in Europe, and their virtual monopoly of the trade helped instigate the search for an eastern sea route.
Image credit: Mazarine Master, via Wikimedia Commons
3. A Market Scene in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, c. 1901
Image Credit: Ebay
4. A 19th century sturdy, wooden box with a stenciled print which reads East India Cloves 6 lbs
Most cloves came from the island of Ambon, also known as Amboyna, and its surrounding territories, while the Banda Islands were the world’s richest producer of nutmeg. Controlling these islands and their commodities proved to be challenging for Europeans - logistically and politically, and this often dominated East India companies’ operations.
Image Credit: Etsy
5. A spice market (c. 1857)
Typical spices in the Indian kitchen include pepper, cloves, dried red chillies, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, fenugreek, fennel, turmeric, saffron, coriander & mustard seeds and cumin.
Image Credit: Pinterest
6. A vegetable and spice market at Benares (c. 1840)
Mastering the art of cooking by using certain specific blends of these spices lends unique character, colours and textures to the food, which has helped Indian cuisine make a mark for itself worldwide.
Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
7. A late 19th century Indian handmade copper spice box with hinged lid with handle and clasp, internal removable copper tray and five varying size internal compartments with lids with knobs and a recurring floral design.
Image Credit: Antiques Atlas
8. An antique Indian Brass box with a latch which opens to six equal compartments.
Image Credit: Etsy
9. Spice boxes and utensils were also commonly engraved at the time of purchase, with the initials or full names of their owners, making it easier to identify them later - a practice that continues till date.
Image Credit: Etsy
10. Spice box, enamelled silver, Dholpur, Rajasthan, ca. 1850
Exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and bought by the Museum of Ornamental Art as a 'modern' piece from Dholpur in Rajasthan - this box is elaborate in terms of its style and relates more closely to the 19th century enamelled silver wares of Lucknow. Small, decorative boxes of various forms (circular, hexagonal, octagonal or rectangular and others) appear in Mughal miniatures from the late 16th century onwards and their use is believed to be connected to the preparation & presentation of Paan (a quid made of chopped areca nuts mixed with spices and wrapped in a leaf - mostly eaten at the end of meals).
Text & Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
11. Teak spice box
This box resembles a betel leaf and it is intriguing to note how sometimes even food items defined the aesthetics, shape and structure of the objects in which spices/Paan ingredients were stored, as seen in the image here. Mundane objects started to exhibit great craftsmanship and became symbols of one’s wealth and status. Even today, most street corners in India have their own Paan shops and the tradition of eating Paan has been passed down across generations.
Image Credit: Decorative Salvage
The use of utensils and objects made of Bronze, Brass, Copper & Kansa is deeply intertwined in daily lives in Indian households. They are produced in various shapes, sizes and designs and are used not only for cooking, storing, serving, dispensing and cleansing, but also in the form of diyas, puja thalis, lotas and bells for praying purposes, in conjunction with other standard religious items found in houses. Their roles are mostly pre-defined within the context of Indian culture, rituals and festivities - reminding us of our inherited traditions and shared histories that one can’t afford to ever forget or lose.
1. 'Ayurvedic Man'. A gouache with pen and ink painting, c.1800.
Ayurvedic herbology indicates that herbs and spices are beneficial for the mind, body, and spirit and can be used internally or externally. They are believed to aid weight loss, help in fighting cancer, detoxifying the body, purifying the blood, improving digestion and other bodily functions.
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection
2. A still from the Hindi film Bawarchi (1972), by Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Kansa (Indian name for bell metal or bronze) is an alloy, formed by heating together both - Copper & Tin. Being malleable, it is further handcrafted into products and provided different kinds of finishes. It is usually used to eat food and drink water on a daily basis. It is believed that storing water in a Kansa vessel for at least eight hours helps positively charge water for balancing all three doshas present in the body.
Image Credit: Youtube
3. Kindi - Spouted Bronze Pitcher
A type of pitcher, usually found in old Kerala houses and other parts of India - Kindi’s origin dates back to the Chalcolithic periods cultures of South Asia, notably in Savalda Culture and two well-preserved examples from Jorwe culture pottery dating back to 2nd millennium BC. It has often been used to dispense holy water during Pujas and also to store water at house entrances, for visitors to wash their feet before entering and to wash hands after eating.
Image Credit: Kerala Folklore Museum
4. Cast Brass Lota (water container) made of cast brass and with engraved decoration.
In Indian-origin rituals, it is mostly used for sacred ceremonies and wedding rituals. Variations of it can be found in different states across the country.
Image Credit: British Museum
5. 18th Century Mughal Brass Paandan
This fine betel or paan box or pandan has a circular form with a domed cover that rises to a flattened top. The cover and box have fluted sides, suggesting a Mughal architectural quality. Betel or paan chewing is a habit that unites Southeast Asia with the Indian subcontinent, parts of southern China and the Western Pacific. Indians and Southeast Asians invented elaborate rituals associated with betel nut usage and developed fine containers to store ingredients.
Image Credit: Michale Backman Ltd, London
Basketry & braiding
Weaving - as a social activity has been central to our existence, all in terms of adornment and identity-formation, shaping and sustaining the domestic space & handcrafting objects for utilitarian purposes. Baskets, containers and trays continue to be used as typical objects of everyday use and can be found across multiple communities - each practising their own weaves, patterns and designs.
1. Young Woman with Basket and Broom, India, c. 1921
Image Credit: University of Washington
2. A man sitting with baskets with a woman and children looking on, c. 1940s
Image Credit: Ebay
3. Southern Kuba and Kete peoples create baskets and boxes in various sizes for multiple uses. This tall one with lid, retains the curving cane hook used to hang the basket from the matting that forms the walls of a dwelling.
Image Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
4. A Young Woman Having Her Hair Braided, Artist: Rembrandt, c. 1635
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
5. Braiding of hair in tribal African communities and many cultures elsewhere is very common. They allow one to develop a sense of identity & community and experiment with new ways of presenting and celebrating oneself, while adorning with additional elements like accessories and clothes - all of which have also led to some interesting contemporary interpretations as well.
Image Credit: Atelier Ashiesh Shah (@ashieshshahatelier)
6. Ethiopian Noblewoman with two attendants carrying possessions in two ornate baskets with conical lids, c. late 1930s
Image Credit: Media Storehouse via Mary Evans Picture Library
Jewelry & adornment
Certain Celtic & African styles of adornment highlight the dominance of the circular-patterned rings and necklaces in their cultures, respectively. The Celtic ones were of multiple types - elegant, massy as well as ornamental. Celtic jewellery was often intricately represented in other visual records and artefacts too, while portraying their gods, goddesses and warrior heroes. The African forms, on the other hand, were layered, multi-stringed and long - mostly being complimented by wearing jewellery on arms, ears and wrists.
1. Silver Neck Ring, c. 475–400 B.C.
Neck rings, worn by both men and women, were often seen as symbols of divinity or high rank, while also offering protective powers. Ancient writers noted that the first-century Celtic queen Boudicca, who fought against the Romans in Britain, wore a gold neck ring in battle. Celtic artists have often depicted deities wearing or holding such rings. In ancient Celtic cultures, torcs were a common form of jewellery and were made from bronze, copper, silver, and gold.
Text & Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York
2. Silver Neck Ring, c. 475–400 B.C.
Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York
3. The Gundestrup Cauldron
Since Torcs are likely to have been markers of one’s status and spiritually symbolic, depictions in art of Celtic gods often show them wearing or holding torcs - one of the examples of which, is The Gundestrup Cauldron: a c. 100 BCE silver and partially gilded vessel with rich relief decoration. Its interior panel shows a godlike figure with antlers sitting cross-legged and wearing a torc around his neck, while holding a torc in his right hand.
Image Credit: Medium
4. The Snettisham Great Torc
This gold alloy torc with ornamented terminals was made from just over a kilogram of gold mixed with silver. Many surviving torcs have been recovered from shallow pits, most likely put there for a ritual purpose as a votive offering or simply for safekeeping.
Image Credit: British Museum https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/80664001
5. Spiral gold hair ring with tapering ends
The art of jewellery-making developed in Cyprus by the early years of the Bronze Age, but enjoyed a notable heyday in the Late Cypriot period, when there was a remarkable increase in supplies of raw materials (gold, silver) from Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor.
Text & Image Credit: Museum of Cycladic Art
6. A man in South Sudan, Africa. ca. 1900 - 1909
Image Credit: Richard Storch via Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris
7. A Kikuyu woman, Africa
Image Credit: Old African Postcards
8. Gold Earrings from Cyprus
Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York