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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Kente Cloth: (Mmeeda, "something that has not happened before")

Photo: Paul Macapia

Kente Cloth: (Mmeeda, "something that has not happened before")

20th century

Mmeeda patterns convey a notion of how cloth is used to mark history. An Asante dictionary translates mmeeda as "something unheard of, unprecedented, extraordinary." Other sources rephrase this to mean "something that has not happened before." Researcher R. S. Rattray recorded it as asonawa mmada and said it originated from the name of the first clan to father an Asante king.

Kwame Nkrumah was a force in world politics, leading the first successful transition from colonial to independent government in twentieth-century Africa. Nkrumah wore a Mmeeda kente cloth on February 12, 1951, the day he was released from a year's prison term for sedition against the colonial government. Wearing an Mmeeda was an omen for the next decade of Nkrumah's career as he led Ghana to independence on March 6, 1957 and became its first president in 1960.

"I have learned through my parents to admire kente and to appreciate that, for most Ghanaians, kente cloths are heirlooms. They are precious treasures given on significant occasions and hopefully passed down from mother to daughter, uncle to nephew, father to son." (Abena P.A. Busia, 1999)

Kente is perhaps the best known of all African textiles. These strip-woven cloths speak of authority and rank through their carefully inserted patterns, of which over three hundred warp-and-weft variations have been documented. The names given to Asante kente vary: named after important chiefs, queen mothers, historical events, plants, animals, and proverbs.

Kente is most frequently seen at festivals in southern Ghana and Togo and has its origins in the regalia of the Asante and other Akan groups. By the late nineteenth century it was often found in non-royal arenas and by the end of the twentieth century it was available to anyone who could afford it.

In America, kente has emerged as a potent symbol of identification with Africa. A kente cloth, or its representation, is seen at African American graduations or other ceremonies honoring people for their accomplishments. Other uses of kente, however, have disturbed some Ghanaians, who see a distinctive cloth being marketed as a commercial symbol for all things African.
Cloth (strip weave)
59 1/16 in. (150 cm)
L.: 92 1/2 in.
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Provenance: Collection of Mr. Denteh (location unkown); sold Katherine White (1929-1980), Seattle, Washington, 1969; bequeathed to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1981
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistoryLos Angeles, California, Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, Jan. 20 - Mar. 17, 1974 (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, May 5 - Sept. 22, 1974). Text by Robert Farris Thompson. No cat. no., pp. 22-23, reproduced pls. I (frontispiece, color), 28.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, African Panoplies: Art for Rulers, Traders, Hunters, and Priests, Apr. 21 - Aug. 14, 1988.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, Feb. 7 - May 19, 2002 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 2, 2004 - Jan. 2, 2005; Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum, Feb. 12 - June 19, 2005; Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 8, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006; Nashville, Tennessee, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Jan. 27 - Apr. 30, 2006 [as African Art, African Voices: Long Steps Never Broke a Back]). Text by Pamela McClusky. No cat. no., pp. 100, 103, reproduced pl. 57.

Published ReferencesFrank, Patrick, Prebles' Artforms, tenth edition, 2010, illustrated pg 309

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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