They are as conspicuous in the society as the continent itself is on the map of continents; they have become the face of the fashion and style of Africa. Anthropologie has used them to cover ottomans and to upholster chairs.
On its re-emergence and re-invention, of sorts, at the turn of the century, they have become the latest toys and favourite fabric of choice in latest designs by top, contemporary international designers as well as the garment of choice by the fashionable celebrities all over the world.
Stoutly and bravely out-muscling its local competitions like the equally regionally popular fabric of guinea, the Yoruba adire, the Tiv’s mule and ange, tie and dye, kampala, the ankara has stood the test of time not just on the strength of its mass appeal, affordability, variety and ease of maintenance, but also largely due to its versatility.
However, it seems that grassroots popularity has beclouded its origins even before the very eyes of the people who traditionally adorn and patronize it as much as to carve out a home for it in their wardrobes with pride, thus further raising surprise and even objections whenever the issue of the fabric’s true history comes up in public focus.
While the fabric may have existed for generations among us here to establish its own acquired roots, the problem remains that this false sense of origins is fast established as real among the patrons and local dealers alike on the West African sub-region, Nigeria inclusive.
This is just as some debate appears to have thumped that stack of belief as to the true origins of the fabric that has even been re-christened and nationalised as the ankara, abada, or simply by the name of its overseas producers. Moreso, considering that the word itself ‘ankara’ may not even be African, let alone Nigerian.
Many have expressed the concern that the misconception regarding the origins of the fabric particularly among the local semi literate dealers in the fabric was not helped much by the proliferation of the textile mills that sprung up in the country between the 80’s and late 2000’s which mass produced the prints almost to perfection compared to the imported brands.
This misconception therefore becomes more ironic particularly in the case of Nigeria where as nearly 90 per cent of these factories owned by Indians or Chinese or Lebanese nationals have gone under since the 2000’s and in the rest of West Africa by as much as 80 per cent, and yet the mistaken identity for the ankara remains.
Many have also posited that if there existed local factories for the mass production of the regionally popular but still largely imported local guinea, the mule, ange, adire and many others, perhaps the tag of African fabric on any one of them would not be so misplaced after all.
However, while the rest of the world thinks and assumes that these fabrics are African in origin, and to very large extent even convincing other Africans that the fabrics are theirs, the reality remains that the notion is false.
We tend to think of the Ankara as ‘African’ because they are widely worn mostly in West Africa, when in actual fact other than the consumption and the huge market; nothing else is African about the fabric as far as its origins are concerned.
Researchers also believe that when Africans in collusion with the rest of the unenlightened world refer to these fabric as “African,” they are rather missing a much larger story; this type of fabric is traditionally designed and manufactured by Europeans in European factories for export to West Africa, and the designs are derived from patterns that European designers adapted from traditional Indonesian batik.
When Indonesian batiks were reinterpreted by European manufacturers for a new market in West Africa in the late 19th century, the prints, as you might expect, went through some changes. According to anthropologist Nina Sylvanus, Africans preferred a more colourful palette.
Also batik patterns, like the one in this slide, were often floral; West African wax prints incorporate more geometric designs. These days West African wax prints have evolved beyond the abstract; patterns often depict important current events, like world cup games or presidential victories.
They’ve got palettes so bright and clashing that they threaten to sear the eye and patterns so loud they make Hawaiian prints look demure, yet they are slowly becoming as commonplace as plaid. The media (both fashion and mainstream) tend to refer to them as “African prints” (when not referring to them more vaguely, and cringe-inducingly, as “tribal”). But the term African print should give us pause, Africa, after all, is a pretty big place. So when we talk about these African prints, what are we really talking about?
The patterns found on Dutch wax prints. Dutch wax is a kind of resin-printed fabric that has long been manufactured in the Netherlands for a West African market. But to call these fabrics either Dutch or West African is to ignore a far more complicated set of origins.
Yinka Shonibare, the well-known Nigerian artist whose work often features these prints, has made a career out of exploring the history of the designs. “The fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think,” Shonibare has said. “They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own.”
The story begins in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where locals have long used the technique of wax-resist dying, basically applying wax to a cloth, and then dying over that wax to create a pattern, to make batik. These elaborately patterned handmade textiles bear some similarities to the prints we’ve been noticing on the runways: bold, repeating, intricate motifs set against backgrounds of varying hues. So what accounts for the overlap? One prevailing theory is this: In the mid-19th century, the Dutch enlisted a bunch of West African men, both slaves and mercenaries, to beef up their army in Indonesia. While there, these men took a liking to the local handicrafts and brought batik back to their home countries. And voila: A taste emerged in West Africa for these Indonesian designs.
In the meantime, Europeans were hard at work figuring out how to manufacture their own versions of batik, with the intention of flooding the market in Indonesia with cheaper, machine-made versions of the cloths (the handmade versions were labour-intensive and expensive). Finally, at the end of the 19th century, a Belgian printer developed a method for applying resin to both sides of a cotton cloth, and the machine-made wax-print fabric was born.
However, there was a problem: The machine-made version of these cloths developed a crackling effect, a series of small lines, dots, and imperfections where the resin cracked and dye seeped through, that did not appeal to Indonesian batik purists.
In need of a market for the new textiles, the Dutch turned to West Africa. As it turned out, West Africans were actually partial to these imperfections: They appreciated the fact that no two bolts of cloth were identical. The West African fondness for this effect was so pronounced that Dutch wax manufacturers still programme those imperfections into the printing process today, long after the actual mechanical limitation has been resolved.
As Europeans began to sell this cloth, in West Africa, largely to women, both rich and poor, who regarded it as a marker of status, West African tastes shaped the evolving designs. The local women traders who distributed the fabrics favoured brighter palettes, tighter patterns, and geometric shapes. New patterns were designed to reflect significant events and local proverbs.
Though European manufacturers identified the fabrics by number, West African traders often named them, and those names became widely known. One famous pattern that shows a bird cage with an open door and a little bird escaping from it is called “You fly, I fly.” It is generally worn by newlywed women, as a bit of a threat to their husbands. “The minute they are named, they are also used to communicate,” says Jessica Helbach, a Dutch curator whose design studio worked extensively with Vlisco, one of the main Dutch wax manufacturers, to launch an exhibit now up at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem about the company’s history.
Helbach says that naming the fabrics, and using them to express certain ideas, is a way for West Africans to claim the foreign-made cloth as their own. And so the machine-made Indonesian-inspired patterned fabrics became indelibly associated with Africa, and with a particular notion of African tribalness, of which Western fashion cannot get enough.
However, what’s interesting about these fabrics, says Nina Sylvanus, an anthropologist who has made a career of studying the function of wax cloth in West Africa, is not how “African” or traditional they are, but that they are regarded by wearers in places like Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Ghana as international and cosmopolitan.
When Western designers call collections that use wax prints “tribal,” Sylvanus says, “it harks back to a sort of evolutionist, colonial perspective which attempts to freeze Africa as a place where ‘tradition’ is still happening.” But West Africans who buy bolts of the fabric, generally to be tailored into dresses and suits, are fully aware of the fabric’s complicated origins; they often pay a premium for European-made cloth, even though West African-made and, increasingly, Chinese-made iterations are available for considerably cheaper.
And despite those origins, Sylvanus notes, wax prints have become an integral part of West African life: Having the latest designs, and wearing carefully chosen, meaningful patterns, communicates social status. Wax prints are also used as courting gifts, they’re usually included in a woman’s dowry, and they are even essential garb at funerals.
At Vlisco, one of the last European producers of this cloth, the fashion world’s rising interest in their product has not gone unnoticed. The company does collaborate with fashion designers, but it also moves swiftly when a designer lifts one of its patterns without permission.
This happens a lot: “When people think things come out of Africa,” Helbach remarked, “they don’t worry about copyright.” For example: When Japanese designer Junya Watanabe printed silk garments for his 2009 runway show with Vlisco designs, Helbach says the Dutch company quietly ordered him to stop; they ended up settling with the designer out of court. But Vlisco hasn’t held Watanabe’s infractions against him; the company even brags about the Watanabe collaboration in press releases. Watanabe, when asked for comment, did not confirm or deny, but said: “all was settled amicably.”
But who can really claim a copyright to a design that is itself the product of so much cultural appropriation and re-appropriation? In attempting to call these designs their own, Vlisco highlights its own fraught history. Not only were the original industrially produced Dutch wax prints copies of Indonesian designs, they also were influenced by Indian-inspired British designs. Vlisco’s website proclaims that it has been making wax fabrics for West Africans since 1846. The irony, says Sylvanus, is that in 1846, Vlisco wasn’t making wax fabrics for the African market; they were designing them for Indonesians. Nor were they the first to hone the wax-printing technique: It wasn’t until the early 1920s that Vlisco became expert wax printers, when it obtained the rollers of another Dutch manufacturer who had mastered the process.
The biggest threat to Vlisco’s hold on the market today comes not from high-fashion designers, but from Chinese copycats, who since the ’90s have been using digital photographs to produce cheap copies of European designs to sell in West Africa.
West Africans often consider the Chinese imitation wax cloth down-market and inferior to the European standard; the Chinese cloth, crucially, is frequently printed only on one side. But for those who have been priced out of the Vlisco market, the Chinese offer a welcome alternative.
In response to the prevalence of these Chinese imitations, Vlisco recently changed its marketing plan. Its new strategy is to brand itself as a fashion house, releasing 20 to 30 designs every few months. The logic of this strategy, in part, is that the Chinese imitations usually take about two to three months to come to market, so Vlisco can stay ahead of them with fresh patterns. Vlisco has also launched a line of wax-fabric-covered accessories. Sylvanus suspects that West African consumers will eventually embrace these (relatively) new Chinese wax cloths in some form. Already there are Chinese designers who have been collaborating on designs with local women in Togo, replicating, in fact, the same process that helped companies like Vlisco come up with such popular patterns.
Which means the Dutch company that peddles Indonesian-inspired designs to West Africa may be edged out by the Chinese, and in search of a new market. But if Vlisco’s branding efforts succeed, if the world begins to perceive these designs as belonging to a major European manufacturer and not an African cottage industry, will the fashion world remain interested in this hybrid fabric? That’s Vlisco’s catch-22.
Additional report courtesy: Julia Felsenthal