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Designing national identity through cloth: the pánu di téra of Cape Verde

I propose to analyse the way in which the pánu di téra shapes the history of Cape Verde. The pánu di téra  is a cotton fabric that began to be produced in the archipelago in the mid-fifteenth century, the technique having been brought from Africa to the islands by Guinean slave weavers. It was later used as trading currency for the acquisition of slaves from Africa’s West Coast to be sold in Brazil, migrating there as well. Following their independence in 1975, the pánu di téra will came to be a testimony to the islands’ African heritage, and a symbol of Cape Verdean identity.

It is in the context of the re-Africanization process led by the PAIGC (the African party for the independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) following independence that a valorisation process begins which, in conjunction with opening markets and growing tourism, culminates in the establishment of the pánu di téra as a trademark of Cape Verdeanhood. With this process in mind, I analyse the effects of globalization in an island context and the possible forms of resilience to it.

Preliminary Dilemmas

The pánu di téra distinguishes itself from other African fabrics by its blend of aesthetically developed, yet unusual and complex patterns which combine an Islamic or Hispano-Moorish influence with a weaving technique of African origin, practically identical to that used by the Manjak-Papel (Carreira, 1983, p. 139) woven from multi-coloured cotton thread. Traditionally, the predominant colours are indigo blue and white.

This fabric has shaped the history of Cape Verde, especially during the period from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, with production falling during the eighteenth century. Highly valued along the west coast of Africa, the cloth was an integral part of the commercial trade in both goods and enslaved people, and played a role in increasing the demand for slave labour in the archipelago.

The fabric had a symbolic significance, and was used during ceremonies, and as a sign of social status. It further acquired a political significance, which changed over time, from the colonial period to the present day. 


In the age of globalization and tourism, a renewed gaze on the pánu di téra makes it the symbol of a unique identity: not quite European, not quite African, but Cape Verdean. Contrary to an identity eroding tendency towards faceless mass production – and the consequent loss of traditional values, this new gaze, which fuses new influences with traditional techniques and innovative designer could open byways of renovation and sustainable development. In this way, the pánu di téra has always been caught up in a whirlwind of transnational exchange: having served as an important catalyser of the slave trade that triggered the process of globalization – as a form of currency  that facilitated the circulation of goods and people – now, due to an influx of tourists and an erosion of diversity, it has become a symbol of Cape Verdean identity. 

Such was the background and motivation behind this investigation. However, two methodological problems were apparent from the outset. The first issue is that by adopting the prism set by the school of island studies for the analysis of material and immaterial culture, I presuppose a relation between geography, landscape and culture, whose island specificity is reflected in the myriad  material and subjective objects that make up the cultural fabric. This assumption raises the following questions: what is distinct about island spaces (treated here in a broad sense, encompassing the memory of interactions between man and landscape)? And, given this, can Cape Verde be described as a particular instance of island-ness?

The second dilemma is: who is more suited to relating this? One of the cornerstones of cultural liberation and the epistemological decolonization of the mind as described by Amílcar Cabral is “the writing of one´s own history” (1967, 225) and liberation from Western ethnocentrism, a challenge which was also discussed in other former Portuguese colonies, by the Mozambican philosopher Ngoenha (1992), for example. This project, however, was not fully completed: Inocência Mata, an author from São Tomé and Príncipe – an archipelago previously under Portuguese dominion – highlights the predominance of imperialist structures that can still be seen in academic circles, as well as the danger of ironing out differences through the concept of “Lusophony” (2014). In the same vein, the Cape Verdean writer Odair Varela (2009) has denounced the predominance of the European scientific model, inherited from colonialism, in the emerging Cape Verdean academic milieu.

Moreover, how should authors of Portugese nationality (like myself) approach the history of regions marked by Portugese colonization? In what way, and where from? Am I, from a continent and a former metropolis, equipped to explore and “reveal” the relations of shape and feeling of an island way of life, by definition private and intimate, and its implications and place in collective history? 

Imagined from the outside, islands are often represented as “immaculate”, “virgin” with no trace of man – places to start over, to be reborn in. This image itself to the projection of two dreams: that of possession and conquest – leaving a mark on a pure smooth beach; and that of the demiurge, where mn, following a second birth, would be afforded the possibility to re-invent himself. It is, in essence, the idea espoused by Deleuze in “Desert Islands” (Deleuze, 2012), the “pristine source” archetype of the island that underlies the descriptions of the Fortunate Islands since Hesiod and Homer. 

In this article I do not claim to reveal the essence of immaterial Cape Verdean culture, as though it were hiding, waiting for me to bring it to light. I have tried – in line with the strategy proposed by Trinh´s “speaking nearby” (Minh-há, 1992) – to create empathy with my object of study in order to reduce my distance from it, accepting subjectivity and incorporating – as far as possible – the voices of research participants, including them in the text through interviews. 

In this context, I accept my own subjective stance on the islands as an “impassioned” wandering, recognising and trying to avoid the pitfall of considering the islanders as passive and involuntary “objects of the gaze” (ibid., p. 39). 


The intertwining of the threads of history and those of the panu di téra.

We shall seek in this article to outline the history of the pánu di téra  (cloth of the earth in Creole), and of how it weaves into that of Cape Verde itself, acquiring an important role in the triangle of trade between Africa, Europe and Brazil. As a form of currency, it accelerated the flow not only of people but with them, dress codes, attitudes and music, among other things. Benefiting from the strategic position of the islands, lying close to the African continent and on the route to Brazil, the cloth was part of the engine of the accelerating trade of material and immaterial goods and enslaved people.

Cape Verde is located in the North Atlantic, and although it is isolated from the Western African coast, it is sufficiently close – about 450 km away (Amarante, 2012, p. 21)   – to be considered part of the Sahelian climate. It possesses an exiguous continental surface (INE, 2015) and around half a million inhabitants. While it is considered to have been uninhabited until its discovery by the Portuguese in 1406, some Cape Verdean historians have postulated the existence of previous inhabitants resulting from shipwrecked Wolof, Lebus or Felupe tribespeople from the neighbouring peninsula of Cape Verde in modern Senegal (source of the archipelago´s name), the islands having been known to Arab geographers as early as the eleventh  century (ibid.). The archipelago was subsequently colonized by Portuguese settlers and maintained by African slaves of diverse origins, mainly from Guinea (ibid. p.21), becoming an important commercial hub in the slave trade between Central Africa and Brazil. Slaves were generally kept in such a way so as not to allow people of the same ethnicity to mix, a custom that led to the birth and institution of modern Cape Verdean Creole.

In a similar manner to that observed in other Atlantic islands such as São Tomé and Príncipe or the Antilles, or  Mauritius in the Indian Ocean creolization in Cape Verde emerged from a process of subjugation and violence, and the internalization of the mechanisms for the preservation of social hierarchy common in Europe. A social habitus was thus established at the linguistic level, a diglossic relationship, i.e., one of status inequality between one or more varieties of the same language (Pyndiah, 2016, p. 488).

The stratification of society was thus established on a foundation of racial logic inherited from colonialism: while in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the elites were made up of white settlers and lower nobility, these were replaced in the seventeenth century by a second elite – the “sons of the earth” – comprised of white and mixed-race merchants made wealthy by trade with Guinea. The adverse effects of insularity, the arid climate and the poor characteristics of the Cape Verdean led to white settlement being scarce and left administrative responsabilities unattended. By the nineteenth century a third elite had therefore emerged, the brankus di terra, made up of mixed race and black individuals, adopting the name after replacing whites in administrative positions (Shabaka, 2013, p. 12). 

In this context, and in order to underline the weight of their contribution to this story, it is important to bring to light the way in which slaves were not passive objects of domination. Weaving techniques for example, were brought to Cape Verde by African cotton weavers enslaved for the quality of their work. Between 1460 and the first half of the sixteenth  century investment centred mainly on bulk cotton production destined for Spain, Portugal and the African coast (Carreira, 1983, p. 23).  Indigo, together with cotton, was “the fundamental base of Cape Verdean cloth, and even African cloth in general” (Carrera, 1983, p.56). Brought to Mozambique from India, the pigment travelled to the islands of Cape Verde at the end of the sixteenth century, its introduction likely implying the arrival of slaves already proficient with the processing of this dye (Pereira, 2015, p. 66).

According to Carreira, a Cape Verdean expert who constitutes an essential reference in the field of the study of the archipelago´s textiles, the re-invention of the geometric patterns of Moorish and Hispanic influence introduced by the Portuguese (Carreira, 1983, p. 23) created a set of patterns more elaborate and complex than that which existed at the time in the area between Senegal and the Gulf of Guinea. Carreira (1983) suggests that as the predominant dyeing technique in this region involved indigo dye, the most similar cloths to those from Cape Verde (aside from woollen blankets from Mopti, Niafunké and Goudan) are the cotton cloths from Ivory Coast, although these are simpler.  This opinion was recently contested by Alberto da Costa e Silva (2011), who argued that these geometric patterns were already known in Western Africa, through the influence of the Berbers, long before the arrival of the Portuguese in Cape Verde a hypothesis seemingly proved by the archaeological discoveries of eleventh-century Tellem cloths in the cliffs of Bandiagara, in Mali (Silva, 2011, p. 17).

What is certain is that Cape Verdean cloth rapidly became the preferred choice of clan leaders, who went as far as stipulating the obligatory inclusion of “cloth work” in their commercial transactions, for the reason that “He who did not possess cloth from Cape Verde often found it difficult to acquire slaves” (Pereira p. 29). Commercial go-betweens operating frequently in the regions of Liberia and Senegal in the ivory, glue nut and slave trades imposed similar demands on their European partners as part of their negotiations for the same reason (Ibid., 2015, p. 64). The demand was such that it led to an increase in the demand for slaves in order to deal with cotton production. In 1582, the slave population of Cape Verde´s Fogo Island was nine times that of whites, the island´s demographics consisting of a total of 13,700 slaves, 1,608 whites and 400 free Africans (Barry, 1998, p. 40), a mix which favoured the emergence of a Creole population (Pereira, 1998, p. 66). According to a number of authors, including Carrera (Ibid. p. 52), this evolution reveals how the quality of Cape Verdean cloth played a decisive role in the increase in slavery, with profound consequences for Cape Verdeans themselves.

In 1613, a shortage in coin minting led to an economic crisis of such proportions that the use of cloth as currency spread from external transactions involving Cape Verde to the remuneration of its public officials (Ibid. p. 102). By 1680, the standard European iron bar was valued at two pieces of Cape Verdean patterned cloth called barafula – a rough variety of– while 30 bars could be exchanged for a slave (Duncan, 1972, p. 218). The barafula consisted of strips of dyed cloth sewn together in a crossed white-indigo pattern, falling within the larger category of pánu di téra “simple and light cloths”, linear weave fabrics of limited use (Carreira, 1983, p. 107). “Needle cloth”, so called due to the use of needles for its finishes, consisted of strips of white cloth dyed pale blue or red a posteriori (Ibid. p. 114); “Cloth of labour” meaning all fabrics of a more elaborate nature (panos de obra in Portuguese), was sewn from black and white cotton thread as well as multi-coloured silk thread forming objects, human figures, houses and geometric shapes (Ibid. p. 119). The “worked animal cloth” (pano d´obra bicho in Portuguese), receiving its name due to its similarity to the skin of some animals (boa constrictor and crocodile), was part of the latter category.

It is important to emphasise the role of slaves in the flow of material and immaterial goods not only from the mainland to the islands, but in the opposite direction as well. Cape Verdean fabric not only dressed the Guinean elites, but those of the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) and the Niger Delta (Ibid.). The significance of the fabrics is testified in a map of Africa by John Sudbury in 1626, which depicted the Senegalese in Cape Verdean garments (Pereira, 2015, p. 68). Other accounts bear witness to the arrival of the “cloth of the earth” to Brazil, likely by the hands of slaves: two paintings by Albert Eckout, completed during the Dutch occupation of Northern Brazil, portray an African woman wearing a pánu di téra skirt tied by a red cloth to her waist, and an African man wearing a loincloth of the same fabric (Pereira, 2015, p. 70). According to that same author, the impact of its use can still be felt today in the fashionable attraction of black and white colours in certain regions of Africa: the people of the Niger Delta produce a fabric, the “pelete bite”, frequently white and black in colour and whose patterns closely resemble those of the pánu di téra (Ibid, p. 75); Funeral attire in Southwestern Nigeria is also traditionally black and white (Ibid. p. 76).  In Cape Verde the cloth was commonly used for symbolic purposes. It was traditionally offered to the bride as part of the marriage proposal, but was also used to wrap the bodies of the deceased and as a sign of mourning (Ibid.). It also functioned as an external sign of social distinction due to its high price and indicated, when worn around the head, the elevated status of the wearer (Mendes, 2008, p. 84).

In the eighteenth century the cotton and weaving industries began to decline. Two main factors contributed to the culture´s downfall: The policy of monopoly carried by the Portuguese crown and the settling, in Cape Verde, of the Grão-Pará e Maranhão Company in 1755. The company secured exclusive rights for the sale of the “cloth of the earth” as well as for the extraction of Roccella tinctoria in Cape Verde, the Azores and Madeira – lichen used in the production of dyes, and monopolized the slave market in the archipelago, Guinea, the Amazon and Maranhão (Ibid.). This monopoly allowed the company to double the price of slaves, leading to a shortage of labour in cotton farms and mills and to their subsequent abandonment. Other factors contributed to this downfall directly or indirectly: multiple droughts and ensuing famines; the disastrous Treaty of Methuen between Portugal and England in 1703, which guaranteed the protection of English textiles in exchange for that of Portuguese wines in English markets, eschewing other commodities; and finally, the Industrial Revolution and the spread, from 1850 onwards, of cheap American white cotton fabric known as “paulino”.


The role of the pánu di téra in the construction of  Cape Verdean identity

Because of its value as a manifestation of African cultural heritage, the use of pánu di téra as garment was restricted on the islands by Portuguese colonial power, especially at the beginning and in the middle of the twentieth century (Almeida, 2003, p. 61). For the same reason, following the independence of Cape Verde in 1975, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde – the party that came to lead the Republic of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde simultaneously from 1975 to 1980 – incremented given to the pánu di téra within the framework of the re-Africanisation process, as a symbol of Cape Verdean resistance in the face of colonialism.

During this period, material culture became the repository of hope for the flowering of a creativity thus far repressed under colonial rule. This incentive for the re-birth of local crafts was spurred buy a comment made by the Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, in his book Aventura e Rotina (Subtitled: “Suggestions from a trip in the search of the constants of Portuguese character and action”, 1953). Having visited Cape Verde by invitation of the then Minister of Overseas (denomination for the colonies introduced by Salazar – the dictator of Portugal from 1932 to 1968  – , in 1951) Admiral Sarmento Rodrigues, in wich the author remarked on the “inexistence of popular crafts on the Archipelago” (Venâncio e Silva, 2010). It must be pointed out that Freyre had been the author of the luso-tropicalist theory, outlined in Casa Grande & Senzala (1933), according to which the Portuguese possessed a genetic tendency towards miscegenation. This theory was later adopted by Salazar during the 50s as a way to legitimize the exploitation of the colonies in the face of growing international pressure towards decolonization, using it as the foundation for an ideology of assimilation.

Set against this background, from 1975 to 1991 crafts became an “integral element of the national construction of the first Republic, built under the aegis of Africanism” (Rovisco, 2017, p.10). With the goal of preserving Cape Verdean traditional weaving techniques, artists Bela Duarte, Luísa Queirós e Manuel Figueira created, in 1976, the Resistance Artisanal Production Cooperative – to become the National Centre for Crafts the following year (Centro Nacional de Artesanato – CNA), aiming at at boost the weaving and tapestry sectors (Ibid. p. 8). From 1978 to 1983, under the leadership of Manuel Figueira, the CNA was characterized by its experimentation, counting a number of experienced weavers among the members of the team (Ibid. p. 10). Some of the works produced during that time, today in exhibition at the Museum of Traditional Art located in the old National Centre for Crafts, demonstrate the then innovative application of the pánu di téra to different objects such as lamps, upholstered chairs and various garments.

From this period onwards, without any identifiable point of origin, the use of pánu di téra shirts as a public statement of Cape Verdean identity began, to emerge among intellectuals, artists and members of the political elites. Generally, the purposeful acquisition of articles of “interest” – for their price or the history to wich they have a connection – is an inherent pleasure of the acquisition of rare or unique items. The pursuit, judgement and element of choice implicit in the acquisition of such an item invest it with the memory of that choice-moment, attributing to it what William Campbell designated as a “narrative”, i.e. a story connected to the here and now, to a specific place and time – the duration of its fabrication and the moment of its acquisition.

Generally, the use of pánu di téra is intended as  statement of belonging to or having an  appreciation for Cape Verdean culture, as well as of support for the authenticity embodied in the craft. Therefore, compounded with the sensory appeal of texture and style, the acquisition is the fruit of an affective decision that justifies the perceived value. Because identity is something under permanent construction, negotiated between the projections cast onto us by the other and those we hope to give of ourselves, clothing becomes especially significant as an interface between public self-representation and the intimate way in which one experiences that self-representation, defined by Turner as “social skin” (1980). The pánu di téra became in this way a means of communication, the “brand” of Cape Verde. The following section throws light upon the change in attitude towards the pánu di téra  brought about by the shifting flow of the circulation of goods, information and people, now pushed predominantly by tourism, as well as upon the way in which the global and the local intertwine in this context.  


Globalization and the pánu di téra

Identity currents in Cape Verdean society oscillate between tendencies influenced by two movements. The first of these is called the “claridosos” – a literary and intellectual movement born in 1963 connected to the publication Claridade (“Clarity” in english), which seeks its roots in a Creole vision of what it considers to be a Cape Verdean essence of mixed European and African components, ignoring the racial conflicts that persist in Cape Verde. The second of these is the Africanist movement, which believes these  roots can  be found in the African cultural matrix alone.

Following the first open elections in 1991 , according to Odair Varela (2012), the current advocating a creolist discourse as a means of upward social mobility articulated with the rise in tourism, and since then market expansion has gradually gained hold. Traditional crafts and the pánu di téra in particular became a brand and a symbol of the nation, connected by some to Creole culture (Filinto 2005, s/p).

In this context, the evolution of traditional crafts has, since the elections, been connected to a movement of national identity construction which, according to the anthropologist Eduarda Rovisco, is marked by an “amplification of de-Africanising processes” linked to the “progressive growth in tourism and immigration” (Rovisco, 2017, p. 10). Tourism has become the main source of income for the country, representing 19.4% of the GDP in 2008, about 60% of that year´s revenues in services (Amarante, 2012, p. 39).

However, the articulation of global and local processes is felt differently across the different islands of Cape Verde. The islands of Sal and Boavista have suffered most from the negative effects of intensified tourism after investing heavily in the sector. Focusing on Boavista, in 2015, 90% of available rooms for rent belonged to four hotels owned by foreign entrepreneurs or economic groups (Rovisco, 2017, p. 12). This situation led to the disastrous conditions of immigrant workers in the construction sector and the re-emergence of a semi-colonial social hierarchy. As noted by Rovisco: “the growth of tourism and immigration from the CEDEAO (Economic Community of Western African States) constitutes a new framework for the re-affirmation of Cape Verdean culture [whose] components strikingly resemble those at the source of the long process that created them: black slaves and white masters” (Ibid. p. 20).

Albeit on a smaller scale, the growth of tourism on the island of Santiago favoured the growth of the souvenirs market seeking to correspond to a “Cape Verdean” or “African” stereotype, notably through the spread of the application of pánu di téra to garments such as t-shirts and, more commonly, accessories such as wallets or jewellery, targeting tourists in particular. However, the lack of historical acquaintance with the pánu di téra renders most tourists incapable of distinguishing the authentic cloth from cheaper industrial knock-offs or stamped fabric from Senegal, the whole roughly fitting the “African” label. We visited one of the stores run by the Artisan Association of Santiago, located on a pedestrian street in central Praia, the Cape Verdean capital,  where a variety of smaller items (agendas, wallets, necklaces, earrings, sandals, t-shirts etc..) displaying applications of pánu di téra, some genuine others not, constituted the main body of sales.

Concomitant to this overwhelming production is a generalized loss of the sense of belonging and of firm rooted ground, generating a fetishized longing for, or nostalgic projection of a lost paradise, accompanied by the production of commercially interesting substitutes. Indeed, in some African contexts, ethnicity is rapidly becoming a global marketing strategy for adding value by associating products to an authenticity derived from local tradition (Comaroff, 2009). This process of heritage commodification is most flagrant in island settings, especially on smaller islands, “unwittingly, the objects of what may be the most lavish, global and consistent branding exercise in human history” (Baldacchino, 2012, p. 55). An element of local exclusivity is attached to the island´s identity: “Fair Isle sweaters, Guernsey cows, Shetland ponies, Texel sheep, Barbados rum, Gozo cheese, Islay Whisky, and Trinidad hot sauce” (Ibid, p. 59).

Appadurai (1996), in line with other contemporary authors, has pointed out the importance of consumption to identity construction in modern society. In the large commercial complex of global culture, identity construction is increasingly linked to the individual´s consumption profile:  what we wear, what we eat and where we buy have become the distinguishing features of an identity around which our self-image constructs itself as those of others are reflected back to us. In this context, politics and consumption meet in the construction of a national identity turned registered brand. However, the loss of substance or authenticity brought about through the merchandising of culture is not linear, but location dependent: while ethnicity branding can have ambiguous effects, it can also help strengthen local economies.

Traditional weavers in particular have benefitted from the demand for their products. We visited the Centre for Arts and Crafts of Trás di Munti (CAO), Tarrafal, in the northern portion of Santiago. Four young weavers work full time there during the dry season to produce the traditional thin strips of black and white patterns using conventional methods.

We spoke to one of them, Rosilda, who was taught the craft by an experienced weaver when she was in her twenties. Like many other weavers, she built her loom herself from natural materials: wood, stone and sticks tied together by rope. The loom´s accessories are also traditional makeup: brush, pedal, pulley, shuttle, caruru (accessory that holds the thread in place), lathe and treadles. According to Rosilda, tourists make up the majority of her costumers.

In Calheta, also in Santiago, I met with Vito, another weaver, who produced cloths with different patterns in bright blues, greens and reds, and wider strips. He works at home, during the hours not spent in the field, and sells his products in local markets, directly to the Cape Verdean public and tourists. When I visited his home he was able to set up his loom in his yard in a matter of minutes, among wandering chicken and passing goats, a testimony to the advantages of this ancestral construction, and the nomadic life-style of its original inventors. By his own account, he was taught the practice by his uncle at the age of six, and began working immediately. Vito fits the profile of the most typical weaver, working from his home, with no official workshop, and generally producing the simplest type of cloth, the animal cloth, as it is one of the most marketable types. The fact that today we find a generation today of young men and women working the craft constitutes another change to the pánu di téra   along with its dimensions, colours and shapes, demonstrating that tradition is not static, but alive.


Collaborative Design and the pánu di téra

The isolation of islands from the mainland naturally contributes to the preservation of artisanal traditions. However, due to the many hours of labour involved and the low profit obtained, these traditions often face challenges to their sustainability. One of the possible ways of opposing the loss of traditional craft is the collaboration of designers and craftspeople for the creation of an added value that will make production – inherently expensive for the manual labour it entails – sustainable. This is the case, for example, for the traditional laces of the Azorean islands of Pico and Faial, which received the international “Women´s creativity in rural life” prize from the World Summit Foundation in 2008. To shore up the dwindling number of lace weavers, the Regional Centre for the Support of Arts and Crafts (Centro Regional de Apoio ao Artesanato – C.R.A.A.), under Sofia Medeiros, has launched several initiatives promoting shared artist´s and craftsperson´s residencies. Another, similar case is that of the knitting technique of Fair Isle – a small island, part of the Shetland Islands. Despite the efforts of some artisans and designers, a report released by the Weave Consult on bequest of the Shetland Island Council points to “a lack of investment in, and focus on design” as one of the major factors threatening this tradition (Scott, K. & Marr, M. 2012, p. 24). This is not the fate of all traditional textiles however, as some are saved by their iconic status, such as the Harris Tweed from the Harris Islands, updated by designers like Chanel or Vivienne Westwood – who has come to revisit the fabric with each new exhibit since her ironic stab at the aristocratic use of tweed in her 1987-88 collection “Harris Tweed”.

I shall cite Fátima Almeida as an example of the renewal of the pánu di téra  in Cape Verde. I met with the stylist in the workshop wich, in early 2017, she had, decided to close and devote to sporadic exhibits to better fit her rhythm. As a designer she set on her career late in life, after having left her previous professional occupation and studied textile handcraft in Portugal in order to pursue the dreams of her younger self.

Fátima chooses to always work with the same artisan, Mr. Henriques, a weaver from Sta Catarina, from whom she orders her latest designs. It was, according to her, from this partnership the incorporation of wider strips and novel colours in her work sprang. As told me, black and blue were the only colours in use when she started. This collaboration between designer and artisan is part of an emerging trend in fashion design internationally. To give a few examples, the Brazilian designer Carlos Miele, alongside his work in global fashion design, has had a standing collaboration with Coopa Roca (Craft and Seam Work Cooperative of Rocinha Ltda) since 2000, using local artisanal techniques such as the fuxico, the nozinho or south Brazilian crochet (Clark, 2008, p. 431); The American designer and co-founder of the Alabama Project, Natalie Chanin, has resorted to sewing and padding techniques from the time of the Great Depression, incorporating materials recycled by artisans in Florence, her hometown (Ibid. p. 432). This practice is part of what is referred to as “slow fashion”, a term introduced by the fashion critic Angela Murills (Ibid. p. 428) to describe a movement characterized by an emphasis on face to face interaction and social responsibility, focusing on the creation of long-lasting pieces with added value (Ibid. p. 429). 

It follows that the manufacture of these pieces, like those produced by Fatima Almeida, is expensive, since the materials, the pánu di téra for example, and the pieces themselves are elaborately artisanal, inevitably raising their price as well as the social status they convey. On the red dress shown on the right hand side for example, each sequin was sewn on  by hand, the dress being intended for special occasions. Other factors which, by hindering their production, contribute  to the elevated price of these pieces are the absence of raw materials, even cotton, on the islands, (these materials thus have to be imported,  generally from Dakar), and the lack of availability of the artisans themselves, who depend on their work in the fields for sustenance. In my view, the association with quality design will be the only way of making the labour necessary for the preservation of the weaving techniques behind the pánu di téra affordable.

One of her own the collections with which Fátima Almeida fell in love was a men´s shirt series which became a registered brand. What pleases her particularly in this collection are  and  the unique “fine details” incorporated into each piece. The shirts are made of linen, and are of a classically elegant with “ivory collars”, a simple cut that doesn´t stifle the movements of the body, and occasional finishes in pánu di téra, wich can vary from piece to piece.

Her pieces evoke both African and European styles of costume. The dress shown for example, is inspired by the caftan, worn in countries like Senegal, Mali or Nigeria: the fabric,  100% cotton, is white, and its shapes more sober: short sleeves – avoiding a bell-bottom shape – and the dress, of white stamped fabric, falls vertically with two lateral openings, hinting  the shapes beneath and giving greater movement to the wearer. The dress´s neckline is square, slightly asymmetric, with a pánu di téra application  which links with two thin stripes on the sleeves. While the caftan is traditionally worn with a head wrapping, here a cap with straight edges is suggested, with a thin strip of red pánu di téra appliqué. On the other hand, the men´s shirts wich update more traditional models, as well as the red gala dresses, are more in line with European clothing, despite the application of traditional Cape Verdean craftwork.


Final considerations

Their cultural contours porous and flexible, islands are open to external influences and consequently hybrid in nature. As seen particularly in the case of Cape Verde, they are also agents for change on the  continent: the pánu di téra , besides presenting a testimony of African influence on the archipelago – fuelled by the history of enslavement – is an indicator of the island´s influence on the African continent and Brazil.

The existence and traffic of the panú de téra on the west coast of Africa is indisputable, a fact to which many documents from the time – including traders” reports, records in historical archives, correspondence, etc. –  bear witness. Many of these sources are analysed in António Carreira´s seminal work Panaria Cabo-verdiano-guineense, 1983, but can also be found in more recent studies, such as Shabaka (2013), Silva (2011) and Duplessis (2015 and 2010). 

As for the presence of pánu di téra  in Brazil, there are a number of reasons that lead us to believe it to be very probable that they fell into the category of “panos da costa”, the name given to cloths imported to Brazil from the west coast of Africa (Torres, 2008): the high volume of traffic of cotton fabrics, corroborated by Duplessis (2010; 21) among others; the aforementioned Eckhout portraits from the mid-17th century, showing an African woman and man, wearing a skirt and loincloth, respectively, made from a fabric identified as pánu di téra  (Pereira; 70); the description of “panos da costa” given in 1852  by James Wetherell, British consul in Bahia, who lived there for fifteen years. The Bahian fabrics described by Wetherell correspond to the pánu di téra  in colour and dimension, and also possess their strips, characterised in a recent study as being “all blue […] achieved with indigo, showing a tendency for grey” (Torres; 6-7). Although these characteristics are not exclusive to Cape Verde´s pánu di téra , as these colours are also found in fabrics from Sudan to the Gulf of Guinea, George Roberts, an English slave trader, reports the trading of these cloths between Cape Verde and Brazil, and states of the island of São Nicolau “they make the best cloth and cotton quilts of all islands but they are too good for the Guinea trade, but do well for that of Brasil, for which the Portuguese were wont to touch there” (Roberts 1726; 437). Therefore, even though Eckhout´s portraits present allegorical elements supporting the colonial discourse of the time (Oliveira 2006; 115-138), we can, through the intersection of these different sources, consider as a plausible hypothesis that the “panos da costa” included the pánu di téra

At the beginning of this text , I asked whether it was possible to retrieve something specific to the “insular” place, defining, at the outset, place as the sedimentation of memories and gestures as well as of the interrelations of people and landscape that transforms space into a place. It appears to me that the intertwining of the history of the pánu di téra  with that of Cape Verde itself – its role in the increased flow of slaves between Africa, Europe and Brazil, its adoption by the PAIGC during the post-independence Africanist movement and its more recent appropriation as a symbol of Cape Verdean identity – shows us how the insular place is constantly re-imagined, a cultural landscape “where imagination takes forms of reality” (Suwa, 2017, p. 6). Although this can also be said for continents, it is even more true to islands subdued by the projection of escapism, on the one hand, and aspiring, on the other hand, to the unknown beyond the horizon. Here we witness the so-called ABC effect (amplification by compression) one of the five characteristics of islandness identified by Baldachino (2017, p. 2016).

Cape Verdean identityis, in this way, constantly being rebuilt. In the words of Manuel Veiga when referring to Jorge Barbosa”s poem “Povo”, “what the poet means to tell us is that Cape Verdean identity exists, but it isn´t static, it´s a continuous becoming (Barbosa, 1989, p. 31). A becoming that swings in response to two calls: the telluric call and the escapist call (Baptista, 1993, p. 179). This feeling is directly connected to the island condition at the same time that the representation that is made of it, through material and immaterial culture – such as poetry or the pánu di téra – shapes, both literally and metaphorically, the landscape itself. Like mirrors facing each other, geography and Imagination meet: “In this sense, the “island” is a work of imagination derived from lived experience and memory in which the island landscape is a product of natural and human environments interacting with each other” (ibid).

In the same way each re-invents his own childhood by creating a narrative – one out of many possible others – with which he identifies in the present moment, so can it be said that national identities are continuously created retroactively though discourse, of which their citizens are active participants. These are Anderson´s “imagined communities” that emphasise tradition, that are capable of giving History a sense of continuity by creating bridges between past, present and future (Anderson, 1983; Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T., 1983). In this context western fetishism of an African “other” can lead to a resurrection and re-invention of tradition, by fomenting pride in national culture and even raising the sustainability of diminishing activities. The process of the production and consumption of physical or immaterial goods  is a complex one that doesn´t exclude reversibility: as Comaroff noted  “for those tourists […] the native “other” in this drama might serve as a fetish, […]But, if we believe the likes of Kruiper or the Xavante dancers or the Hainan islanders, it also appears to (re)fashion identity, to (re)animate cultural subjectivity […] How so? Because the producers of culture are also its consumers, seeing and sensing and listening to themselves enact their identity—and, in the process, objectifying their own subjectivity, thus to (re)cognize its existence” (2009, pp. 25-26). In the same way, the pánu di téra  became a way of performing Cape Verdean identity. 

However, in the context of the pánu di téra, if incentives are not provided and tourism en masse not controlled, the overflow of low-quality pánu di téra products could, led by tourism driven demand, lead to a cultural devaluation, or hollowing out: citing, again, Comaroff “this is why “ethnic tourism” is frequently said to “destroy […] that which it seeks,” (2009, p. 20) 

In order for the pánu di téra to able to justify its price and the activity to be afforded a degree of continuity, it will be necessary to develop a partnership between designers and artisans wich  innovates while maintaining quality. In other words, it is possible for the pánu di téra to play a part in the re-affirmation of Cape Verdean culture and the strengthening of local ties. The garments and accessories produced by Fátima Almeida are an example of this partnership. They attribute a cultural specificityto the pieces, whilst also  operating a  return to their production. As unique objects, they are not disposable copies of a model – the embodiment of an idea or stereotype. This attitude is in line with that of “slow fashion”, in the way that it mobilizes local material culture, its transparent production system, the absence of intermediaries between producer and consumer, and finally the production of long-lasting products prized for their uniqueness.

Another question I faced as I set out on this study was whether, as a mainlander, I was qualified for an incursion into island studies, to even talk about the immaterial culture of Cape Verde, particularly given my Portuguese nationality, that of its former colonizers.Taking into account that the founding challenge to this discipline was framed by Grant McCall as the study of islands “on their own terms”, the best way to not distort the voice of the other seems to me to be to clearly identify the voice of who is speaking. This is what I attempted to do by explaining my particular stance and motivations at the beginning of the text, inviting the reader to undertake a critical reading of this text and complete its lacunae.  The strategy of “speaking nearby” (Minh-ha, 1992) implies respect of the other and of diversity, as well as the recognition of imperfection. It is aligned with a phenomenological approach to the world, open to whatever appears. 

In the same way, I consider that under the homogenizing pressures of tourism and wider globalization, and that of the tendency for greater adaptability, which erases from the product the process of its manufacture and its historicity, that an approach to identity derived from phenomenological tradition could constitute a form of preservation of a true and creative cultural diversity.


Acknowledgments:  Thanks to the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT), Portugal for the Post-PhD Grant SFRH/BPD/108392/2015, my Supervisor, Prof. Dr. Rodrigo Cunha and Co-Supervisor Doctor Carlos Garrido.



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Article originally published in Nolasco, A. (2018). Designing national identity through cloth: the pánu di téra of Cape Verde. Island Studies Journal,

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