Professor Ken MacDonald
DTS403H1-Diasporic Lives of Objects
April 10, 2012
African Wax Prints Transnational Object Biography
Textiles are one the “most ancient and enduring technologies. As one of the earliest technological inventions they are part of every culture and every society, and they continue to be at the forefront of invention” in many industries. (Intimate Textiles: (1) Textiles are also used for articles of clothing and other purposes such as the preservation of modesty which varies from culture to culture but its main purpose is to protect the body against the elements. Textiles are also made of specific colours and patterns which may be of significance to ritual or political situations such as the ceremonial dress of a chief or the commemoration of a political event. Textiles also have an economic value. It is a marketable commodity and can be used as currency today as it was in the past. In this context cloth can be produced for local use or strictly for trade nationally and internationally.
There is a differentiation between the words ‘fabric’, ‘cloth’, and ‘textile’, although they have been used interchangeably. “Terms such as ‘fabric’ and ‘textile’ can be distinguished according to their literal meanings and Latin derivatives: fabric, from fabricare, means, to make, to build, to ‘fabricate’, is the generic term for all fibrous constructions; while textile, from texere, means, to weave, referring specifically to woven fabrics. Fabric structures made directly from fibres by simply pressing and matting them into coherence, i.e. felted materials such as bark cloth, must not be confused with fabric structures made by an ordered interworking of previously prepared elements (the component parts of an interworked fabric). African Textiles: Looms, Weaving and Design (13)
Cloth on the other hand is more difficult to define. “All textiles are cloths, but not all cloths are textiles; for they need not be woven, and all cloths are fabrics, but, again not all fabrics are cloths.
Textiles or cloths from Africa share these characteristics with all cultures. It has a long history of cloth production which enables it to participate in transnational trade for centuries. For example in the sixteenth century Benin traded woven cloths with Europeans in the Gold Coast and the Yoruba sold cloths that were traded in Brazil. Zaire (Congo today) and Sierra Leone used cloths specifically woven to pay debts. Africans also used textiles for the living as well as the dead and cloths were made specifically for these purposes. Textiles can even be made for inanimate objects such as a house to venerate a person or a spirit or deity.
African textiles are sought after for their aesthetic and functional qualities but also their bright colours, and complex patterns and “enticing array of textures” (African Interweave, Textile Diasporas 13). Traders, designers, consumers and artists appropriate and determine their own interpretations, and culture-specific meanings onto African textiles which have shifted its meanings as it becomes more transnational and transcultural. The textiles in turn will continue to appropriate notions of authenticity and identity on to it and on all those who are willing to use it to determine what and where is home. It will also be a bridge in cross-cultural relations in a quickly globalizing world where meanings continue to shift.
The first time I saw African wax prints I thought they were garish and ugly. They seemed more like fabrics one would use for decoration rather than clothing. Therefore, I mentally rejected them. Another reason I rejected them was that they did not look at all like the African indigenous fabrics I saw in books. The indigenous fabrics had colours that were much softer on the eyes and the designs much more cohesive feeling to them. I also did not pay much attention to them because Jamaicans did not wear them unless they knew someone from Africa who would gift clothes made from the fabrics or if they were married to an African. Therefore, when I discovered Yinka Shonibare’s work in my art history program, I learned for the first time what African wax prints were, its history and connection to Africa. Just as Shonibare explores and questions the existing narrative regarding authenticity and identity using these prints as a metaphor, I will examine some of his works and the theories of Igor Kopytoff, Nalini Shankar, and Schamberger, along with N. Thomas and Dafna Hirsch and others to clarify what is considered authentic and how it speaks to identity in the African diaspora.
My question regarding African wax prints are who decides what authentic African fabric is? Most people do not know the history of African wax print fabrics. Like myself I assumed it was of African origin because it is so widely worn by West Africans. I would like to correct this misconception and clarify how it came to be ‘African’ and why and how the African diasporic community incorporates the cloth in its perceptions of Africa.
What role does Afro-European history play in this authenticity and how does this affect African diasporic identity? Here I want to provide an understanding of how and why the Europeans came to be the exporters of the African wax print into Africa and how it affected to traditional production of textiles. Also how the fabric was received. It is also interesting that the ‘middlemen’ used to sell this product were largely women and how this product was marketed by them in Africa. I also want to explore how this affects the diasporic African community whether or not they know of this history and their response.
Does objectification and commoditization of this cloth alters the sense of African in the diasporic identity? This fabric is widely worn by Western Africans and often bought by diasporic Africans as a way to incorporate ‘Africa’ into their lives. I wonder how does buying and selling the fabric affects identification with Africa? I also want to show how Africans have changed the fabric by customizing them to reflect their own cultural and religious values.
Transnational History of African Wax Prints
The African wax prints started its object life as transnational object. It was an imitation of Indonesian batik which is known there as Java. The Dutch and the English competed to mass produce the batik but the Dutch won out and became the leading producers of the fabrics. However, the production of the batik was not accepted by the Indonesians because of the cracking in the wax so it was imported to Africa where the ‘flaw’ was accepted along with the cheaper prices which were then exported to the Gold Coast, today’s Ghana and throughout West Africa into Central Africa. Another story is that the Dutch wax fabrics did not do as well as expected in the Indonesian market because of economic restrictions imposed on the sale of foreign textiles at the beginning of the 20th century to protect locally made batik textiles. In order to prevent a loss, the target market was switched to West Africa. Yet another story; it is believed that West African indentured soldiers for the Dutch in Indonesia, also known as the Black Dutchmen who served between 1810 and 1862 had taken Indonesian batik with them on their return home as gifts for their families.
By the 19th century Dutch merchants discovered the technology of engraved roller print machines and dye-resistant resin to design the motifs drawn on batik cloth. The Dutch wanted to mass produce textiles for the foreign market. The van Vlissingen, family who established today’s Vlisco brand of cloth, started to use the technique which became the leading producer of African wax prints until today. The company has changed ownership since November 2010. Vlisco’s motto “the fashion-makers of Africa” has plants in Africa today.
However, until the 1960s, most wax prints sold in West Africa were being produced in Europe. Post-colonially, things changed. Currently, Ghana is home to several fine and high quality wax print manufacturers including Woodin, a subsidiary of Holland’s Vlisco and ATL which is a subsidiary of Manchester-based ABC textiles. It is noted that even though these textiles are now manufactured on the continent, the companies that manufacture them are largely not African owned.
Yet West Africa became the exclusive markets for Dutch prints and Dutch brands have dominated the West African market since the end of the 19th century where they held importance as status symbols. Today, wax prints carrying European brand names are the most expensive in the West African fabric market. The Dutch brand Vlisco is a symbol of class on par with any popular Western brands like Rolex or Louis Vuitton. A wealthy person cannot be seen wearing just any wax print brand, it has to be Vlisco.
Today the fabrics are primarily produced in Ghana and have strong cultural, social and economic importance. There are three categories of African wax prints: Java, fancy and wax which are commonly known by many names: Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais. However, many Africans are unaware of the history of the fabrics.
Whatever its beginnings in Africa, Dutch wax prints became extremely popular and over time the Africans customized and personalized the designs incorporating prevalent themes, colour combinations and symbolism, including the emblems uses by the Asante people of Ghana called Adire. “The patterns tell stories of importance to the wearer, such as proverbs, poems and traditional African fables. The colours also hold significance as they can represent social status, age, tribal affiliation and marital status. One example (below) is a cloth carrying the proverb, “Ahonnee pa nkasa”. Literally translated this means: Precious beads make no noise. That is, empty barrels make the most noise or a good person needs not blow his own horns.
The Chinese have made a recent entrance into the wax print market creating competition in the African textile industry. The Chinese manufactured print textiles challenge the established trade relationships between West African and European cloth manufacturers. The Chinese created trade relations with African traders who wanted to reproduce cheaper fabrics to sell in their own countries. This shows that African traders have always played a role in the cloth trade even in the context of European hegemony. It is interesting to note that Dutch wax prints are considered ‘high’ since the Chinese now produce cheaper prints that is considered the ‘low’ end. This ‘high’, ‘low’ positioning is changing due to the Chinese improving their wax prints techniques and recently buying a wax print manufacturing company. This leaves Vlisco as the only European-owned producer of wax prints in the world. If companies like Vlisco got into the African market by offering Africans cheaper readymade wax print fabrics often cutting out or lessening the demand for indigenous fabrics, then it is only a matter of time before the Chinese succeed doing the same.
The question of Authenticity
I argue that Africans consider authenticity only on their terms; they decide what that will be. They have their own cultural values and preferences and this helps them to direct the market of wax print fabrics including the price and whoever delivers the right combination wins their acceptance. One way they accomplish this is through the largely female sellers who market the fabrics according to the culture from which they are a part of. I also argue that Africans even of the diaspora determine what their identity will be and what visual representations they will use to present this identity. Africans are accustomed to change whether it is thrust upon willingly or not. They adjust accordingly while still holding on to their ancient proverbs and emblems that signify who they are as a community.
It is obvious by now that Dutch wax prints are of foreign origin however, they are widely recognized and accepted as African fabrics both nationally and transnationally. The question of authenticity is a valid one but where something originated is irrelevant because it is the people’s acceptance of the fabric that makes it authentic. Part of the reason it is authentically African is because the Africans have put their stamp on the fabric by demanding that the designs and colours reflect their personal tastes and cultural values. They demand that the producers put on prevalent themes, colour combinations and symbolism, including the emblems and motifs that are important to them. They also include ancient proverbs and political and commemorative images and words that encourage memory and nostalgia.
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe by Margritte is important for understanding my work”, says Yinka Shonibare. The word and image piece presents a pipe and then says it is not a pipe. “You can’t smoke it. Sometimes people confuse representation for what it represents. But they are not that physical thing; they don’t exist in the world in that way. So if you see a woman walking down a road and she’s wearing African cloth, you might think – now there’s African-ness, true Africanity. But that cloth, those clothes, is not African-ness.” (Yinka Shonibare, interviewed in 1996 by Nancy Hynes; see Hynes, 2001: 62) pg. 201.
Here I disagree with Shonibare because I believe that origin alone cannot determine identity. If that was so diaspora Africans would identify solely with Africa however, the 400 year separation have created a new identity where the former does not take precedence. Africa is just a part, albeit an important part of whom they are. I for one I’m just warming up to this African wax print fabrics mainly because of the more contemporary style the garments are made into today. However, I still find most of the fabric designs to loud but I see a slight change in the tone and colour combination that hold some promise but I’m in any rush to be African in this way. African-ness is innate just like any other ethnicity; mode of dress or change in speech cannot change that. That said, the desire to belong and connect with our origins is a strong one and some people will find dressing in ‘traditional’ garments as a way to satisfy this need.
This is like the article by Dafna Hirsch titled “Hummus is best when it is fresh and made by Arabs”, where food becomes a part of your identity by way of politics. In West Africa it is wax prints that take on this role pointing to the complicated and complex relationship Africa and Europe share and how this particular kind of fabric has become a frame to highlight this relationship. Therefore “African-ness” is passed on to the fabric. It has experienced an adoption.
As for the concerns that indigenous fabrics are being squeezed out of the market; it is up to Africans to value these original workmanship of African designs and try to make them more widely available to ordinary people.
Toronto blogger “the streetidler” writes, “by focusing on textiles, Yoruba problematizes the notion of cultural “authenticity,” and for me, hammers home the extent to which “authenticity” can be understood as a relative term.” While she accepts the Dutch wax fabrics with the designs and motifs of West Africa are not locally produced, the fact that Africans have “assimilated into various local cultures, and like clothing and fashion everywhere, have come to represent one way Africans can visually express themselves, communicate their aesthetics and even their values sartorially.” This it is the way the fabric has become cross-cultural that makes it an effective ambassador of West African culture. She goes on to mention her mother’s view of the “issue of authenticity” where her mother elaborates on a “history of collaboration between European Dutch wax fabric manufacturers and their West African customer bases. She argued that while the cloth itself isn’t originally African, many local motifs and patterns are integrated into the designs of the prints.” She goes on to explain that the prints are now manufactured in West Africa, primarily Ghana, therefore, “she feels that because the designs of the prints and the fact that they are, in many cases, locally manufactured makes them African, specifically Ghanaian and so because of this the European origin of the textiles doesn’t matter that much.” (http://thestreetidler.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/african-dutch-wax). She goes on to say that ethnic identity is tied to visualizing herself living with “Dutch wax prints from West Africa in general, but more precisely Ghana, despite their European roots. This is mostly because my understanding (or lack thereof) of these printed textiles were shaped and informed by the way I came to understand and see myself as a Ghanaian-Canadian.” The question of authenticity is therefore decided by those who use and identify an object as necessary part of their existence.
Objectification and Commoditization
The commodification of African wax prints was embedded into the creation of the fabric. Yet it’s commodified in ways today that was unforeseen one hundred years ago. It is used to make not only clothing but also placed on furniture and accessories in the West. It is applied on to things that satisfies the wide range of ideas that the West and
its designers and manufactures can imagine
Shalini Shankar mentions the intersection of materiality and language use. She argues that verbal practices, generally overlooked in material culture studies, are an integral dimension of consumption. Types of talk – both referential and indexical – can illustrate how people mediate relationships with objects, as well as with each other.” (293) How language is used to illustrate African sayings such as proverbs and political slogans onto prints, linking word and image which forms a mental image or memory that can be remembered and commemorated many years later. The spoken word takes on an added form; a visual which then speaks to the viewer and like an advertisement continues to speak as long as the clothing is worn.
Shankar also mentions the idea that “consumption has been described as a language of communication, it is most often considered in the absence of words” (297) is powerful because we often think of consumption in terms of desire, and status or prestige but very unlikely as a form of communication. We don’t often think that African wax prints would say something about the individual or community but it is also a part of identity as both native and diaspora Africans attest. The saying ‘actions speaks louder than words is appropriate here because the act of acquiring objects say so much about who we are.
In N. Thomas’ article “Objects, Exchange, and Anthropology” –(14-16). Thomas argues “…gifts are radically different from commodities. Indebtedness may not necessarily take a universal form, and the precise character of the singularity of the gift will require further clarification, but the differences can provisionally be seen to emerge sharply from the fact that giving always has a distinctly social effect: mistakes made in giving have consequences that commodity transactions almost never have.”(15). This is true for women who receive pieces of wax prints as gifts, a store owner in Atlanta says, “forget flowers; husbands and boyfriends say “I love you” with pagne (another name for African wax prints in Ivory Coast). A future bridegroom wouldn’t dare propose marriage without a couple of gift-wrapped pieces along with the customary bottles of gin. Thus clothed, the women are ready for their traditional roles as lover, wife, mother and homemaker. A man is expected to give his bride-to-be an expensive gift of African wax print, preferrably the most expensive kind Superwax print. It also seen as a rights of passage for women who receive these pieces. They are considered mature and seen as ready to make a commitment.” If the fabric was just a commodity the relationships men and women form would not be threatened because it would be a straight exchange value.
Although African wax prints are mass produced the are part of a culture and according to Kopytoff, this prevents commodification which “homogenizes value” whereas culture discriminates thus, culture creates “singularization”, taking the fabric and personalizing it and making it a part of their identity removes the object from the realm of commodity (Kopytoff, 73). Therefore, it is the special ways West Africans use the fabric that makes it identifiable as their own and it is this characteristic that makes it an object of identity and commodity in the diaspora communities of the West.
African Wax Prints in Cross-Cultural Mediation
Schamberger addresses the subject of object biography as a, “focus on the flow of people, things, ideas and practices across national boundaries defines transnational scholarship. Rather than seeing these flows as distinct streams, a growing body of work argues that places, people, things, practices and ideas, constantly in motion, shape each other.” (Schamberger 276) This shaping occurs frequently in the transnational crossings of Africans and Africans of the diaspora especially in the West. The biography of African wax prints have taken on a more hybrid identity which blends seamlessly into the Western identity and increasingly the globalized world and as the fabric was singularized by West Africans, it is desired in the West where it becomes a commodity again and become singularized again if the object becomes a part of a consumers’ history. This is what I believe Schamberger means when she talks about how “living in a material world: object biography and transnational lives experience, collapsing geographical, temporal and perceptual differences. As people engage with them, the objects enable them to simultaneously experience and mediate multiple times, places and modes of being. (Schamberger 277). It is only right that people should respond to objects as they experience them in their context of times and places while maintaining the knowledge and awareness of the origins of the object, the wax prints.
In following the trajectory of the African wax prints’ origins to its introduction into West African culture we see that the Africans have already had a well established relationship with the making and trading of textiles. They were used in every area of life from birth, death, ritual, and ceremonies and of course trade. Thus Africans are no strangers to the life of this object. It is an activity they participate in quite vigorously. I know this from being around West Africans and from witnessing the pleasure my late grandmother and now my mother get from buying cloths. They may not use them right away but the fact of owning them is a reward in itself.
I have attempted to explain the organic nature of textiles, its transnational biographic history and transcultural relationships. I also covered issues of authenticity and identity that shapes how the fabrics are perceived and used. I’ve also included pertinent examples to help clarify the usage of the cloths and how it is influencing contemporary societies around the world. I’ve also included theories from our readings that help to explain the reasons why an object such as textile can have such a profound influence on a culture that many centuries later descendants of that culture still seek to merge their new identities with the one from the past and how that impacts the rest of the world.
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