Senegalese artist weaves heritage into works; Tapestry maker visits African art museum to share his craft


Abdoulaye Kasse sits hunched at his giant loom, his fingers flying across and through the strings as he weaves colorful wool strands into a tapestry.

The 48-year-old Senegalese master weaver and tapestry maker has brought his 300-pound handmade loom from his west African homeland to Columbia's African Art Museum of Maryland, which is exhibiting 21 of his medium-size tapestries until March 8.

This is Kasse's first visit to the United States and the first time he has been allowed by the Senegalese government to travel with his work. But Kasse's tapestries hang in museums, palaces and government buildings all over the world, including the Louvre and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, England's Buckingham Palace and the Vatican.

Tall and trim, Kasse speaks lovingly of his craft, which was passed down to him by his father, a weaver who made clothing.

At the small museum, Kasse works quickly at weaving his latest tapestry, which soon will take the shape of a brilliantly hued butterfly awash in a blue background. It will take 15 days of feverish work to complete the piece, which he will give to the museum as a gift.

As Kasse's feet dart back and forth over long, wooden paddles, which raise and lower the strings of the tapestry, he weaves a tale about his craft and the life of a master artisan.

"Whenever I design a tapestry, I make no more than five of that same design," Kasse said in English, one of four languages he speaks. "I only want for them to be original, to be rare. I want for people to treasure each tapestry like a piece of art."

"I try to tell some story of Africa in each tapestry, of life in my home," he said. "Each tapestry will last for at least 100 years."

The moth-proof wool used in his tapestries is shipped to Senegal from Belgium and comes in 286 tints. The importance of color cannot be underestimated in his work and in African life, Kasse said.

"Africans love color," he said. "Senegalese women love color. Color means life. You see it in our clothes, in our art."

Many tapestries are abstract works, with intricately woven patterns and cubist designs that represent some aspect of life in an African village.

Whether it be village elders sitting under a tree at dusk or a group of women returning to their village after gathering water from a deep well, Kasse's tapestries are outstanding examples of an age-old art form, said Doris Ligon, African art historian and co-founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland.

"It is so obvious when you see Mr. Kasse's work -- which is so sophisticated, so detailed -- that you're looking at the work of a master," Ligon said.

Carol Bodin, president of the Weavers Guild of Greater Baltimore, says her organization has only a few weavers who make tapestries, a difficult and time-consuming craft. Most weavers make clothing, wall hangings or table linens.

"You really have to have a special talent to do tapestry," Bodin said. "You have to be a fine weaver and a great artist. Tapestry weavers -- especially fine ones -- work at a slower pace. And it's to his [Kasse's] credit that he can do folk tales and abstract designs in his tapestries."

Kasse was born in Thies, Senegal, which is home to the government's weaving factory. There, master weavers work on enormous tapestries that are given as presents to visiting dignitaries and heads of state around the world.

Kasse left the Thies factory two years ago and is enjoying a new sense of freedom. He often signs his new tapestries with a pseudonym to differentiate them from his work for the national factory.

He also shares credit with artists who draw the original design of a tapestry by weaving their names into the piece. For Kasse, the final product is all that matters.

"Each tapestry is different and special," he said, "and each one deserves to be seen that way."

The African Art Museum of Maryland is at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $2; $1 for seniors and children younger than 12. Members get in free. Information: 410-730-7105.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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