A Kenyan small woven basket. Kikuyu, early 20th century 6-1/2 inches high (16.5 cm) The soft woven basket with braided string handle, black, orange, red and natural bands. From the Toledo Museum of Natural History: The Personal Collection of Carl Akeley. Image by Heritage Auction. HA.com
‘The commencement of a string bag.’ Routledge, M.A. (Oxon.), W. S., & Routledge (born Pease), Som. Coll. (Oxon); M.A. (Trin. Coll., Dublin), K. (1910). With a Prehistoric People: The Akikúyu of British East Africa; Being some Account of the Method of Life and Mode of Thought found existent amongst a Nation on its first Contact with European Civilisation. (1st ed.). London: Edward Arnold.
‘Weaving a string bag.’ Routledge, M.A. (Oxon.), W. S., & Routledge (born Pease), Som. Coll. (Oxon); M.A. (Trin. Coll., Dublin), K. (1910). With a Prehistoric People: The Akikúyu of British East Africa; Being some Account of the Method of Life and Mode of Thought found existent amongst a Nation on its first Contact with European Civilisation. (1st ed.). London: Edward Arnold.
A Kenyan soft woven basket, Kikuyu, early 20th century, 8-3/4 inches high (22.2 cm). The soft basket of red and brown stripes alternating with natural fibers, string handle to upper rim. From the Toledo Museum of Natural History: The Personal Collection of Carl Akeley. Image by Heritage Auction. HA.com
The Kiondo is traditionally a round, striped, woven sisal and leather strapped basket, made and used by Agikuyu women from central Kenya, to carry out daily domestic tasks. The size depends on its use mainly as a container to transport farm produce, firewood, and water in gourds. For Agikuyu people, the origin and symbolism of the Kiondo has prolific meaning. Contemporary iterations of this object have been created to cater mainly to the tourist industry, focusing more on popular fashion aesthetic appeal than authenticity.
In Agikuyu society, the making of traditional artifacts was relegated mostly to women—with the exception of ironmongery and musical instruments. The objects they created were a vital part of the life and sustenance of the community and have a clear correlation to the holistic essence of their being. The most intriguing of these objects is the Kiondo—a sisal fiber basket, woven by women to carry loads of all kinds in day-to-day life. It would normally have been carried with a single cowhide strap around the forehead with the basket resting on the back.
The Kiondo is more than just a container for market produce. It is a sacred and symbolic document that is written in the coded language of the spiral. Even though Agikuyu society was originally matriarchal, there is a recognition of the male being an integral part of the universal picture. While women were the sole authors/makers of the Kiondo, the narratives woven into the basket included men.
Throughout human history, the spiral—the most ancient of archetypal patterns—has spiritual significance. It originates with a center. It is a symbol of the universe, life, and eternity. This pattern can be found in all living creatures in various alliterations: the structure of DNA; the form of a closed fist; the growth of hair on the crown of the head; the arrangement of petals on a flower; the swimming patterns of fish; tornadoes and hurricanes; the stars in the universe. The spiral is a symbol of the self, which connects the conscious to the subconscious world. Our link to the cosmos. According to Carl Jung’s definition: “Symbols…are purified essences that point to a higher ideal or idea.”
The symbolism contained in the Kiondo references the Self: starting with the navel—the symbol of the mother from whom life originates and eternally remains connected to. The basket grows from this point, with the size dependent on the end use. The warp represents the male (‘mirugamo’ – those who stand erect) and the weft represents the female principle (‘rurigi’ – string) that holds the container together. As the construction advances, the sides are decorated with stripes of varying colors, denoting solidarity among the Agikuyu people. The traditional art of Kiondo weaving was a skillful craft, passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Once a quintessential object of domesticity is now a symbol of a leisure lifestyle often reductively referred to as a ‘chic beach bag.’
Appropriation and Influence
Balenciaga's 'Motorcycle Classic Panier Basket Bag' (2010).
For an object to have value, it must have meaning. Beginning with colonization and thereafter globalization, the Agikuyu Kiondo has gone through a process of homogenization. Its origin and cultural significance all but lost. From Nicholas Ghesquière’s heyday as Creative Director, this Balenciaga tote design re-imagines the Parisian brand’s iconic Motorcycle bag hardware featured on a straw body, with rolled leather handles, open top, and interior slip pockets. It was marketed as the beachy, luxe tote for warmer weather. It is, in its essence, a Kiondo.
Céline's 'Twisted Cabas' basket bag in woven textile (2017).
Phoebe Philo’s last collection for the luxury house featured a woven, twisted textile cabas bag with a single knotted leather strap that directly imitates traditional Kiondo design and construction but made for the ‘modern Céline woman.’
Clare V's 'Lea' woven tote bag (2018).
Clare Vivier generously appropriates from the Kiondo to create the brand’s woven accessories aesthetic that is described as “…classic shapes, modern detail & Parisian charm,” without referencing the culture to which it belongs.
Stella McCartney's 'Raffia Logo Beach Tote' (2020).
The Kiondo is now ubiquitously relegated to being a Kenyan tourist memento – “I went, I saw, I got the Kiondo.” A souvenir of having connected with ‘Africa’ somehow. This Italian made, Stella McCartney tote is handcrafted from natural straw, vegetable leather and incorporates the embroidered brand logo between two black stripes. As described on Farfetch.com: “Life’s a beach. Make the most of it. Piña Colada (sadly) not included.” Neither is any homage given to the origin of its design.
Eglash, R. (1999). African fractals: Modern computing and indigenous design (1st ed.). New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press.
Hall, S. (1991b). The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity. In A. D. (Ed. King (Ed.), Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity (1st ed., pp. 19–39). London: Macmillan Press.
Jung, Carl G., M-L von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, and Aniela Jaffé, eds. Man And His Symbols. 1st ed. New York, USA: J.G. Ferguson, 1964. http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.117195.
Kamenju, J. (2002). ‘The Kikuyu Kiondo Kosmology and Architecture: Why Traditional African Huts are Circular.’ In Symposium (p. 12). Presented at the East Africa In Transition: Ethnicity, Economy and Environment, Nairobi, Kenya: University of Nairobi.
Blog article: ‘Gikuyu Kiondo,’ The Gikuyu Center for Cultural Studies.
Book: Kenyatta, J. (1965). Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu. (3rd ed.). London: Mercury Books/Heineman Group of Publishers.