This paper surveys varied cultural identities and the links between Gainesville, a college town in Florida, and the Ghanaian culture as mirrored in the artwork at Harn Museum. In particular, the paper examines how the Kabas and Couture, modern Ghanaian fashion exhibition displayed at the museum, reflect or influence Gainesville diversity. Art teaches people to learn about different cultures around the globe. In addition, it has the capacity to show people that regardless of geographical and cultural differences, there exists many common cross-societal themes and more to learn about other values. Designer fashions are merely part of Accra’s vibrant fashion culture. Although kaaba styles are the most distinct and noticeable form of women’s clothing in Accra, the kaaba itself is a blend of international and indigenous dress styles that signifies a distinct Ghanaian identity.
Gainesville is the largest city in Florida, which is also called the home of the University of Florida. The city celebrates all categories of people from various walks of life. The world class University of Florida contains a large population of college students that hail from different places in the world. This student body reflects a diverse group of people not only from different religions but different races, nationalities, backgrounds, political inclinations, and sexual orientations. The students live and study at UF calmly, and each one of them brings, in turn, something from their cultures, making Gainesville a real unique place among the cities of Florida. This cultural diversity makes Gainesville be regarded as an open city as well as a perfect place to live.
Also, Harn Art Museum is one of Gainesville’s cultural facilities, which is located in the University of Florida’s cultural plaza. The museum exposes the students and the surrounding communities to over 6200 permanent artwork from all over the world. There is a collection of temporary exhibitions as well. Moreover, the museum’s sponsored Florida-centric and international displays, interactive activities, and constant introduction of new exhibits are great means of educating the community through art. One of the exhibitions currently on show at the Harn Museum is educating and giving insights into Africa’s most vibrant fashion culture.
Kabas and Couture: The contemporary Ghanaian Fashion
On the 24th of February, 2015, the Harn Museum opened an exhibition that gives insights into the intersections between the traditional forms and the designer fashions of dress in the Ghanaian culture. This exhibition (called Kabas and Couture: Contemporary Ghanaian Fashion) acknowledges the influence of the Ghanaian cultural style production on the international fashion community (Harn Museum of Art). Although the artworks displayed were made at different periods of time using various means, there are standard features displayed throughout the exhibits that demonstrate significant aspects of Ghanaian daily fashions throughout its history.
The kaaba is a dress that has turned into a sign of national identity for women in Ghana, it actively reacts to the swift and unexpected shifts in the local and global fashion trends (Harn Museum of Art). Kabas and Couture highlight the connections between the designer fashions and the traditional types of dress in the Ghanaian culture (Gott and Kristyne 15). Accra is the capital city of Ghana that served as a link for the creation and exchange of diverse and assorted kinds of dress. This nexus encourages the development of complex as well as vibrant fashion culture. The Kabas and Couture contextualize the African fashion as an internationally engaged as well as aesthetically effective practice (Gott 10).
Art and Cultural Heritage
The kaaba came into existence during the days before Ghana gained independence. Just like many other artworks, kaba was not realized as a pure piece of art. Instead, it was a functional dress. The kaaba originated from two-piece clothing, the blouse (kaba) and the skirt (slit) that was shawled around the body’s base to make a skirt and a T-shirt have two openings (Goldner 106). The evolution of this two-piece clothing wrapped around the waist and a necessary top brings up the concept of when to use the word art and the elements of art. The Ghana women wear kabas with an akataso, which is usually wrapped around their waists. Thus, it makes modern kaba a three-piece dress (Harn Museum of Art 16).
Kaba is sewed from cotton. Ghanaian women proudly wear their kabas and add their twists to the designs. Novel kaba designs are often created, photographed, put on a wall chart, and then sold to everybody. Consequently, it raises the query whether the kabas are an art merely because they are commodities sought-after by both Western and African people or they are an art even in their functional form of dress. Furthermore, it is not pleasant to think that the Ghana designers must sell their hard work as a means of supporting their lives (Gott and Kristyne 17). Their art gives us some insight into the type of lives they live and how they can maintain themselves.
It is evident that kabas depict the Ghanaian heritage and culture regardless of the style in which the design is produced. As the women grow, the designs plus the fabrics’ beauty lures them into loving their kabas. As a result of high awareness and taking pride in their culture, the Ghanaian women proudly wear kabas, which compliment their figures very well (Hansen and Madison 272). Creative design ideas come into the kaaba art nearly every day.
The kaaba garment has three integral parts including also a tape, a sash, or a shawl wrapped around one’s waist to retain the cover in position (Hansen and Madison 272). The idea of a tape and a shawl is often found in kabas made both in the contemporary Accra and in the past as seen in the image above. Again, some of today’s common kaba styles include even simple sleeveless dresses with a “V” neck, which is favored by many young adults, may be also seen in the image to the left (Harn Museum of Art 10). The diversity of the styles and fabrics generates a kaleidoscopic spectacle of a daily dress, thus transforming Accra’s streets into casual runways for showcasing clothing experimentation along with novelty. Most Ghanaian cultures recognize the importance of the slit and kaba. Therefore, it is primarily worn by the majority of Ghanaian women at naming ceremonies, marriages, funerals, and other important occasions. The kaba fashion, unlike many other types, is an inherently egalitarian type of dress equally worn by first ladies and street vendors (Harn Museum of Art 10). The versatility of this fashion design makes it well-liked since one can use it at any occasion.
It is evident that African fashion or African art is not new. Instead, the African fashion designers and artists working deservedly with a creative independence that has never happened before are new at the international stage (Gott 10). The evolution of the kabas during the course of time shows how the Ghanaian people have conserved their culture and have been keeping it comparatively identical for 50 years. The artworks made by these designers and artists are significant scholastic artifacts that teach the world about the complexity and vibrancy of Accra’s fashion culture. The kaaba represents a blend of the local and international dress styles that symbolizes a markedly Ghanaian identity (Hansen and Madison 272). The fabrication of the kabas and their importance to the Ghana people mirrors the significance of this community’s national custom. It is also interesting to learn that this art made by the Ghanaian designers is a significant source of income for many of them as they sewed kabas to make some profit (Gott and Kristyne 17).
Compare and Contrast
The traditions and lifestyle I grew up within greatly contrast the manner in which a small girl would grow up in the Accra community. These two cultures have distinctive differences seen through even comparing the clothing styles alone. Although the majority of people in my community wear westernized clothing, the women and young adults in Ghana still use kabas and slits. The sophisticated designing styles of kaba made from six patches of fabric being able to take months to finish appear opposed to the contemporary clothing styles used in America (Harn Museum of Art 10).
The kabas are handmade through the layering of the six fabric yards, using two yards for every section of the three core parts of the garment (Harn Museum of Art 10). That is, a wrapped or sewn skirt, a tailored blouse, and an extra piece of fabric primarily used as a shawl. Moreover, many colorful fabrics are stitched with added later leather, embroidery, or even jewelry as seen in the image right. Making these kabas does not just take time, it also requires patience, innovation, skills, and imagination which eventually leaves one with a piece of fashion style for a women’s dress. My clothes and most of the American clothes do not display the distinctiveness that those of the women from Accra display on their dresses. Rather, the part of my fellows wear mass-produced, simplistic fabrics.
The striking differences can be seen in the image above. It shows visitors dressed in westernized garments seated next to the Ghanaian fashion design dresses on show. However, their clothes still do not have the symbolism that kabas possess. Rather, they signify the amount of money one has. Furthermore, the trendy clothing worn in America symbolizes the significance of money instead of the meaning of the clothing itself. In the Ghanaian society, clothes mean the world because they allow it to display their elegance and to serve as mediums through which the traditional symbols are conveyed (Hansen and Madison 273). Beyond adding the color and style to the sense of fashion, the usage of these clothes reflects the variety of cultural values. In fact, nothing highlights the African female’s figure better than when the woman is clad with cloth-sewn kaba. Moreover, wearing clothes in the traditional Ghanaian way needs some skills (Gott 10). Regardless of the visible differences in two culture’s clothing styles, they both use fashion as a means of expressing themselves.
Reflection of Diversity
Different forms of dress seen everywhere in the campus reflect diversity in the Gainesville community. Gainesville is a home to an extensive array of people from different races, income levels, social circles, and religions. The city appears to lack a particular cultural distinctiveness. However, when comparing Gainesville culture to another culture with such robust cultural identifiers, the Gainesville culture is one that cuddles all varied kinds of people and their backgrounds. Gainesville, just like many other university towns, has a distinctive mixture of many diverse cultures and can exemplify different American populations as a whole.
The Kabas and Couture art of Ghana exhibits show diversity in the Accra community. For example, the kente design seen left in the picture reflects a distinctive blend of the historical dress practices in Ghana and a cosmopolitan style of dressing that encapsulated the post-independence population of Accra (Harn Museum of Art 5). The Akwadzan challenges gender norms while transforming and reviving established historical and cultural dress practices (Harn Museum of Art 6). The garment itself consists of a voluminous, flattering silhouette which additionally challenges the accepted types of the past fashions for women, primarily tailored and visibly feminine. Through melding the local styles and materials with the international silhouettes and techniques, this art reveals the transformation of traditional Ghanaian clothes into more wearable and stylish forms of dress. So, the design sustains the relevance of the historical clothing practices as well as materials to the cosmopolitan elite of Accra through capturing their global, yet distinctly native and national identities.
Besides, the new age group of designers focuses primarily on reinvigorating wax print fabrics by combining the material with the international dress styles and other imported textiles. So, they make garments that mirror a youth-oriented, national, and multicultural aesthetic identity (Goldner 106). Some designers also incorporate some print elements in their designs inspired by the idea of finding fascinating ways to use African print (Harn Museum of Art 7). For example, the fabrics on the dresses signify the Ghanaian heritage while the wax print was not seen coming from Accra. The designers have embraced this wax print which has eventually become their culture. It is the tradition bit that reflects diversity in Ghanaian fashion (Gott 11). As seen in the photo to the right, the artist blends luxurious European textiles with the wax pattern in subtle and always surprising ways, and this reflects diversity.
The artists in Accra also incorporate materials collected from other African rather than limiting themselves to wax print. It may be seen in the blend dress of woven fabric in the picture to the right (Hansen and Madison 272). Other cocktail dresses include white eyelet features, blending of wax print with many luxurious fabrics. The lace and the green satin blended with wax print can both be seen below. These two dresses bear witness to the diversity of the designs and the range of the print fashions within Accra’s modern fashion culture (Harn Museum of Art 8).
Another aspect of diversity is reflected in this exhibition features through the hybrid form of the Nigerian ashoke cloth (kente-oke) and the Ghanaian kente as seen in the image to the right (Harn Museum of Art 8). The kaaba is designed to depict the Ghanaian-Swiss heritage by using distinct styles and materials of the dress. This cocktail dress is sewn using imported Swiss lace accompanied by white and blue kente-oke cloth, the materials that serve as tangible representations of multicultural identity (Harn Museum of Art 8). The silhouette of a dress is inspired by traditional German as well as Swiss women’s dressing style. Furthermore, it indicates an embrace of different cultural heritages (Harn Museum of Art 8).
Influence on Diversity
Apart from reflecting Gainesville diversity, the Kabas and Coutures also affect diversity in design. Some wax prints have been persistently copied by many aspiring designers from all over the world including America and South Africa (Harn Museum of Art 6). Also, the kaba style designs are unconsciously produced by women all over the world (Gott 20). These simulations influence the diversity and encourage the designers to continually reimagine and create more styles such as the removable collars punctuated by metal studs as seen in the photo to the left.
The surmounting and subsequent termination of the “Jaguar” clearly confirms the existence of a style culture that is aggressively documented in the swiftly changing kaba fashion trends in Accra (Harn Museum of Art 13). Also, the demonstration that kaba was recovering its initial status as a type of fashionable attire for women since the early 1950s is an indication of its influence on diversity.
Furthermore, the kabas remain the most famous and prevalent type of women’s clothing in Ghana (Goldner 106). Similarly, because of its predominance, fashion designers alike and seamstresses are continually inventing variants of kaba. It gives rise to the formation and promotion of a vibrant and unpredictable system of clothing. This fact is best demonstrated by the multiplication of the kaaba fashion artworks and posters as seen in this exhibition (Harn Museum of Art 14). These artworks verify the intense creativity of kaba makers, the rapid speed at which particular styles are revised, and the incredible diversity of Kaba fashion designs.