Trekking the Globe in Stitches: Africa
The final destination of our tour of needlework from the seven continents is Africa. In PieceWork’s November/December 2012 issue, Trish Faubion introduces us to “The Appliquéd Banners of the Kingdom of Dahomey.” Appliquéd banners have been used for centuries in the West African Fon kingdom of Dahomey, known today as Benin, to illustrate power and prestige.
Since the seventeenth century, artisans in Dahomey have recorded important events of their time—battle victories and successful hunts or, more recently, proverbs and moral lessons—using two-dimensional figures appliquéd to a background. Legend has it that King Agonglo (ruled 1789–1797) was the first of Dahomey’s monarchs to commission large (about the size of a European country’s national flag) appliquéd royal banners to emphasize his power and prestige and engender feelings of awe and pride among his people.
Only the king and other ranking officials could use the banners or the imported, brightly colored European fabrics used to make them. Unauthorized users were subject to the death penalty. A court guild of male tailors at the royal capital of Abomey was the only group allowed to produce the banners.
The banners, displayed on walls and carried in processions, typically bore a large central figure (representing the king or ranking official) surrounded by smaller figures. Scenes of violence (corpses, decapitations, hangings) and domination proclaimed the central figure’s power. One such banner depicts King Glele as a lion and his enemies as smaller people. The lion has the neck of an enemy figure pinned to the ground with his paw and the figure’s leg in his mouth.
After Dahomey became a French colony and the French government removed the restrictions on the use of appliquéd banners, people of all ranks began using appliquéd textiles decoratively in their homes. Men’s groups, such as burial societies, also began to commission appliquéd banners. Although the purpose of the appliquéd banners was still to illustrate an individual’s achievements and demonstrate strength or power, the new textiles consisted of a series of isolated images instead of the “bigger picture” seen in the royal banners.
Read the rest of Trish Faubion’s article in the November/December 2012 issue of PieceWork, or make her companion project, “A Benin Lion Banner to Stitch.”
Learn more about needlework from Africa with PieceWork!