Kuba Cosmology and Crafts and the World Wide Web

The Kuba live in present-day Congo (recently, Zaire). In the midst of vast upheavals in the country, past and present, the patterns in their textiles are among the most complex in the world. The Kuba also use analogies drawn from weaving to explain how both individual identity and the universe itself was created. Analogies abound that are useful for thinking about the complexities of the World Wide Web: is it really very new, or very old? Read through the creation stories below (just a few paragraphs), then check out the web/weaving/knot analogies and the examples of Kuba textiles and other forms of pattern-making. The very new is knotted with the very old.

In the beginning, MBoom the Sky Father lit up the dark, empty space of the universe by spewing out the sun, moon, and stars. [His name is pronouced "mmmBoom." To my ears this sounds like the Big Bang itself (and its echoing aftermath), festive and explosive at once.] With the earth-mother MBoom created a son, NGaan, with whom he eternally quarrels. Next MBoom vomited nine animals: four of his own firey nature and four of his son's watery nature: these were the original beings of the heaven and earth. The ninth animal was the lightning animal, which has a mix of both the father's and the son's nature. The eight primeval animals in turn vomited others, which vomited still more in turn, and so all the world's animals, including humans, were formed.

These stories of Mboom may also stand in here as a fit model for the Web itself, its mbooming growth by leaps and bounds (and beyond bounds). Mboom's written sign stresses how a pattern is first created through multiplication (the lines in columns on the left, below) and then recreated and renewed through contrapuntal patterns and tensions (the pattern on the right, below). Both patterns together make for Mboom's sign:

The next event was the birth of Woot, a supernatural being who lives among humans, created through the union of the sky-god and the earth-mother. Woot names each human being, and also names all the animals and the plants. He has nine sons, who with their father teach humans the difference between nature and culture, thus teaching them that they are human. While most of Woot's sons are clearing the land and planting, the two youngest ones busy themselves inventing the idea of pointed things and the art of sharpening. The inventor of pointed things then wounds the sharpener, thus introducing evil and death into the world.

Woot's mother also aids in the creation of culture by giving to human beings the art of mat weaving. Unlike the two-part patterns shaped like an L or a V, or the three-part pattern shaped like a Y, all of which are found in nature, the two-part pattern of a X belongs to the realm of culture, not nature; it is based on an idea. Crossing and interlace thus become the primary elements in mat-weaving and other cultural arts. Kuba designs display complex patterns using L, V, Y, and X forms to symbolize the symbiotic interaction of nature and culture.

Crossing patterns define human identity, and almost infinite variations on these patterns in Kuba design testify to the richness of human difference. "Imbol" is a name given to a pattern created when a line crosses itself twice and then returns upon itself, creating a self-contained knot. The words "woot" and "imbol" are used to refer to these textile patterns, to gender itself (as in the phrase, "what sex [imbol] is your child?"), and to personality type, suggesting that in Kuba culture identity is understood to be a complex form of special knotting. Cultural knowledge is understood to be a form of knotting, of crossing and return, as well.

Some Kuba textiles have groups of such imbol and woot figures variously linked and interlocked as if they were constructing a complete mega-pattern summing up the entire array of possible crossing or interlace patterns. Interspersed within these overall imbol or woot patterns li together--that is, within the many inner compartments created by the linked patterns in the textiles--are an almost infinite array of other patterns, some knotted and some open. This creates effects of flickering and movement and infinite levels, of worlds created within worlds within other worlds. It also suggests how interlaced all individual patterns are within the larger cultural patterns that inform them and create the individual spaces within which they can exist.

--adapted from Georges Meurant, Shoowa Design: African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.