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Royal Robe with Two Knives Design and Insignias, late 19th-early 20th century

Culture: Hausa Peoples, Africa, Central Sudan, Nigeria

Medium: Hand-spun cotton with wild silk embroidery

55 x 101 in. (139.7 x 256.5 cm)

Credit Line: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art purchase

Object Number: 94.4

Not on view

Felix Landry III, Whisant Galleries, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1994

The Hausa, whose predominant religion is Islam, are an ethnic group living mainly in northern Nigeria and southern Niger. Their weavers are famous for embroidered robes that have the sides carefully gathered on the shoulders, and are worn over pantaloons. Called a babba riga or “great robe,” this type of gown is worn by male leaders and dignitaries. Hausa dress, which has disseminated across West Africa, is worn by many people outside the Muslim sphere as a sign of status among men.

 

Male weavers make these robes on narrow-band treadle looms from cotton or silk strips, which are sewn together, folded, and then stitched along the sides. A malan, or learned man, then decorates the fabric by sewing geometric patterns, in the form of spirals and triangular motifs, which interlace on the front and back panels of the gown. The embroidered symbols function like an amulet, a protective object that is usually hidden and derives its power from the mystic knowledge concealed within it. The two knives motif, which represents protection, was probably borrowed from Islamic imagery, in which traditional designs are the “eight knives” and “two knives.” The squares, typical Islamic symbols of the power of God and his creations, represent the four corners of the earth. The division of the square and its placement within the circle refers to the “magic square,” a sacred numerological system that has been practiced for centuries in the Islamic world. Hausa examples may not be true magic squares, but they are believed to be effective in their protective qualities.