Final Grade

Posted: May 9, 2012 by lynndts403 in Uncategorized

Hey guys,

is it just me or is our final grade not out on ROSI yet? Im getting a little worried because its already May. So please let me know if we are all in the same situation ( I have fears that my paper got lost in oblivion…) Anyhow, have a great summer guys!



Penny for thoughts

Posted: May 6, 2012 by mahmerkhan in Uncategorized

Hey! I hope you are well and enjoying the time off school. If any of you have heard the Canadian penny is being scrapped. The Canadian Mint just pressed the last penny on Thursday (or Wednesday, in the last few days to be exact). The penny no longer is in circulation and people are already starting to hoard and hold on to this “icon.” A museum in Halifax displays a million pennies in a big pile on the floor. They are physically swept together and put on “display”. Now they are starting to fear that people might steal these pennies. The penny is being scrapped because the amount it costs to produce the penny is higher than the penny itself…not only this but the penny is not being circulated back into the economy which makes it a waste. Its pretty crazy that the penny is being scrapped. The saying “penny for your thoughts” “I paid a pretty penny for that” it’ll be a relic. What do you all think? Also we all meet for dinner or coffee. Let me know, it would be nice to see all of you! Ciao Ciao. 

DTS Final

Posted: April 14, 2012 by shihhsuanchou in Uncategorized

DTS403 Final essay

Shih Hsuan, Chou

The Spirit Tablet

The Chinese often compare themselves to the leaves of a big tree. As the tree grows and the branches spreads the leaves grow higher and higher from the ground. Then when time comes the leaves detach from their branches and fall back to the root where it was spawned. In this metaphor the bulk of the tree and its branches symbolize the bloodline, lineage from which one descends from, and ultimately to the root, which symbolizes both the founding ancestor as well as the ancestral homeland. It was common practice for Chinese to transfer their remains back home if they suffer the unfortunate fate of “dying as a guest.”  For the traditional Chinese, going home is the one and only option in life, or death for that matter.

However this dramatically changed from early twentieth century. Plagued by constant warfare and economical turmoil many fled from their home town in search of safety and opportunities in places such as Hong Kong, or further abroad to Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The advent of the communist regime in China makes returning home even less probable. Adding to that in recent decades Chinese immigrants began to gain more acceptances from their host countries, and generations of ethnic Chinese are now born and raised without ever setting foot on the Chinese mainland. The idea of homeland became ambiguous: does it mean the country which one hold one’s citizenship? Or a place where one has only heard of in the stories of their grandparents?

It’s with these questions in mind I examine the spirit tablet, or ancestral tablet. The spirit tablet is a central part of traditional Chinese religion and spirituality, and continues to play an important role in contemporary religious, cultural rituals and festivities. I argue that the spirit tablet and the practices surrounding it serve as an important “actor” in producing the imagined homeland and Chinese identity. In the remainder of this article I will first introduce Chinese religious thoughts in general, then the specific practices and meanings surrounding the spirit tablet. Then it will be connected to the transnational context with the aid of examples provided from interview with Chinese Canadians. The article will then relate to other works concerning objects in production of identity.

To begin with an examination of the Spirit tablet in its transnational context, first one needs a basic understanding of Chinese religious traditions. According to, James Miller. Chinese religions typically display four main streams: worship of various spirits, gods and goddesses of folk belief and practice; Daoism; Buddhism; and ancestral worship and Confucius practice. There’s also a lack of a unitary source of authority in these religions, and the tendency toward syncretism. (Millar 2006,  208) In many ways Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are complementary, and it is commonly said that they are “the Three Faiths in one.”Thus many Chinese accept Confucianism as a guide to daily living, have recourse to Taoist practitioners for ritual purifications and exorcisms, and employ Buddhist priests for funerals. (Martin 2001, 328)

This means that a woman can simultaneously hold Confucian values, belong to a Taoist temple, and pray for help to Guanyin, a Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion—and all without exclusive allegiance to any particular monk, nun, priest, priestess, or organization.(Millar 2006, 208) Sometimes this syncretism is seen as the evidence of lacking deep spirituality and commitment, but it also meant that certain practices, such as the offering of incense to a family altar, can exist regardless of the specific religious tendencies of the individuals. It also allowed a great diversity in practice exist among different regions and groups. The Chinese family altar is the cornerstone of family life for Chinese in many parts of the world. It is the tie that binds a dispersed family and serves as a focal point for viewing an extended family that includes the living, the dead, and those yet unborn. (Martin 2001, 329) Traditionally the altar stands in the central room of the house opposite the principal door. Such altars are meant to be publicly seen. Depending on the architecture of the house many altars are visible even from the streets. There is normally an incense pot on the left side of the altar, because this is the position of honor and is reserved for the Gods. While the spirit tablets are placed on the right side alongside their incense pot. Most of the altars have a backdrop that depicts some of the more popular deities. The newer, more prestigious backdrops are painted bright colors that glitter. Varying amounts of religious objects and ornaments, including written charms and souvenirs of visits to temples also decorates the altar. Frequently a Buddha’s image also stands on it. Meanwhile there’re also cases where only the spirit tablet of the ancestors is present on the altar, which shows the possibility of lacking a specific faith yet continuing the practice of offering to the ancestors (This situation will be further examined in the later part of this essay.) For the families who have the means the tablets of more distant forebears would be placed in an ancestral hall. The physical presence of the altar represents the family as a well-knit integrated unit. A house with two altars contains two families; a household with no altar usually considers itself part of another family, and its members will go to the house in which the altar resides for important rituals.( Martin 2001, 329)

Some scholarship classify Chinese ancestor worship accordingly into two separate cults, one is “a series of rites which express the unity of a lineage or lineage segment (the hall cult) and the other group of rites which continue the act of filial obedience to recently deceased forebears (the domestic cult).  The domestic cult revolves around tablets for the recently dead, which are worshiped in order to preserve the memory of the dead, to serve their needs and satisfy the demand of their slight authority. (Emily 1973, 93)Because of the location of these tablets within the home, the women of the house are often responsible for carrying out worship services for them. Worship of each tablet can continues in this way for three or four generations, then the tablet is destroyed and their places in the domestic cult come to an end. In some cases when there is no worship of the ancestors outside the domestic cult, the ancestor whose tablet had been destroyed is never worshiped again. In other cases, when there are ancestral halls, another tablet may be made and placed in the hall. The family tends to commemorate the death days of their closer ancestors or those whom they have personally known. On such occasions, the living members of the family serve its deceased members full meals complete with bowls and chopsticks, rice and oodles, and some of their favorite dishes. In this context, people treat ancestors almost as if they were still living kin. (Martin 2001, 330) Family members usually eat the food after the ancestors have supposedly eaten once the incense sticks have burned out, signifying the ancestors has finished their meal. Ancestors also receive food offerings during major festivals for the gods; domestic worship of the gods tends to occur on the 1st and 15th of every lunar month. While may not be physically distinctly, the hall cult differ from the domestic cult functionally. Names of the founding ancestor and his wife are often the most visible. In the case when ancestral tablets of deceased family members are concealed within a box it’s often the names of the founding ancestor and his wife (i.e. source of the lineage) visible on the outside. (Emily 1973, 117) Of course there’re variations in practices, as not all families can afford an ancestral hall to house the tablets for the ancestors separately, thus a lesser number of spirit tablet is maintained in the household altar alone. Sometimes the tablet of the recently deceased is destroyed relatively shortly after their funeral thus symbolizing a quicker unity with the rest of the ancestry. The belief system which the Spirit tablet originated from does not include a heaven in the Buddhist, or Christian sense for that matter. It holds that the dead exist in a shadowy netherworld and can communicate with and directly influence living relatives. For the Chinese, there is not sharp demarcation between birth and death. Rather, all humanity is considered to be part of an organic system; in yin-yang fashion, individuals are continually being born into and processed in it. But they do not experience final separation from it or death in the Westernized sense. To the Chinese, the system, life, and time itself are circular, and all are united with one another because of this circularity. Although with the ultimate form of spiritual ascension being different this circular perspective is consistent with both Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.  An example is the practice of placing the tablet of the recently deceased into a temple. Many believed that the daily prayers of the monks who reside in the temples could help the spirit of the deceased relieving their karma thus ascend to heaven/Nirvana. The most common prayer among many devout Chinese is for harmony, and it is frequently printed on door frames, charms, wedding cakes, and even the walls of homes. It is a prayer that is directed both to ancestors and gods. And, as indicated above, the members of the living family offer food and rituals in return for the harmony that they seek. People make all kinds of requests at the family altar: for example, helping a child pass an examination, curing the sick, and obtaining employment. Although the requests are not always met, devotees often feel renewed hope and comfort, in large part because of the rituals that unite deceased and living family members through the medium of the spirit tablets on the altar. Even the skeptical carry out the rituals—just in case.(Martin 2001, 334)

Then to what degree are the practices of ancestral worship preserved in the modern, and especially in the transnational context? Many factors challenge Chinese traditional values and customs. On the Chinese mainland one of the most devastating was the communist takeover and the subsequent “Cultural revolution”. This is also consistent in the transnational context as both conversion to Christianity or adoption of modern belief and secularism pose a great threat. However as mentioned before the one of the key feature of Chinese spirituality is syncretism. There is, on the one hand, the anticipated distancing from Chinese religions; while on the other, an interest, a will, and an effort made at religious and cultural recovery, for example, the diffused but persistent continuation in the idea of filial piety as a first step to moral development. The existence of the spiritual tablet and the series of rituals associated with it becomes a medium which traditional values, which is essential in the configuration of a Chinese identity, are conveyed by parents through practices to the next generation. In the discussion about women coping with contemporary religion and tradition, James Miller acknowledged that “women as grandmothers, mothers, and primary caregivers, propagate filial piety in the contemporarily small extended or nuclear family, but who continue to look after the often patrilocal and patriarchal ancestral shrines at home and in temples. In so doing, some women continue to transmit the hierarchical values of senior and junior implicit within the relationships between parent and child, and older and younger siblings. By this means the women themselves gain definition and status; they remain at the heart of the family, binding all of its members together through the notion and practice of filial piety.” (Miller 2006, 213-214)An example of this is the ancestral tablets housed in Buddhist and Taoist institutions alike—for example, respectively, in the Fo Guang Shan temple in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, and in the Darcy Street Fung Loy Kok temple in downtown Toronto. Religious paraphernalia like paper gold nuggets, money printed as Hell Notes, paper clothes, cars, airplanes, stoves, houses, and paper versions of other such commodities may be burned as offerings to ancestors on special days of remembrance, such as Qing Ming festival, the third day of the third month in the lunar calendar, marked off for sweeping the tomb. People also attend prayers and recite Buddhist scriptures on Qing Ming festival to pray for the deceased.

We certainly see that religious practice like worshiping the spirit tablet is being preserved, and then the question is why. Practicing religion, by tying immigrants to each other and symbolically to the homeland, helps mitigate the disruption and stress of migration. Religion also maintains and reinforces immigrants’ national or ethnic identity with their home country. Social networks and organizational resources of religious organizations not only help immigrants define their identities, but they also combat prejudice and discrimination in their new society (Karen 2005, 15-16). The spirit tablet embodies this process, especially in the worship of distant ancestors as it shows the agnatic solidarity which large groups of agnates ordinarily participate. It emphasizes on the continuity of the family line through agnatic descendants; the ancestors of a family without interruption of its line include only its patrilineal predecessors, or members sharing the last name. (Lynn 1994)The fact that the writings on many spirit tablets includes the location of their ancestral homeland-sometimes even to the specific address in a certain province, country, village, street- gives a material, visual affirmation of continuous lineage tracing back and belonging to the ancestral homeland. In fact many Chinese travel to their ancestral homeland so that they can visit the burial places or the ancestral halls of their ancestors at least once in their lives, because in Confucianism living relatives have an obligation to tend such places on regular basis if at all possible or at least to visit them.(Martin 2001, 324) The spirit tablets’ emphasize on the shared continuous last name also helped in producing solidarity and belonging. Although a same Chinese last name can have distinct origins, there’s an ideological, if not mystical sense of solidarity shared by the Chinese having the same last name, this is illustrated by one of the most remarkable of the social structures evolved by immigrant Chinese: the “Same surname associations”. It reinforces the sense of a shared origin.

To further demonstrate the relationship individuals have with the spirit tablet two examples will be shown here. For the purpose of this essay interview were conducted with Canadian Chinese youth with mixed results among them there’re some who having their family converted to Christianity thus rejecting worshiping spirit tablets all together. Others depending on the difference of religious belief have different practices and dynamic relationship with the tablet. The first example is the case of Steven Shen. He immigrated to Canada ten years ago along with his parents from Hong Kong. According to Shen: “I was eleven when my family immigrated here. So it was kind of hard to leave everything I knew behind, you know, friends, schools, and our old place. It also takes some time to get used to the new school system. But at least I got “A” for my math classes.(laugh) But we often go back to Hong Kong during summer and winter breaks so it wasn’t that bad.” Shen provided more details about his family: His father’s family was originally from the nearby Guang Dong province, and his grandfather went to Hong Kong to search for work, where he met his future wife and eventually settled down. They gave birth to his father. His mother came from a family which has lived in Hong Kong previously for generations. His grandfather passed away when he was only 2 years old, leaving his grandmother tending the spirit tablet of both the ancestors and thee grandfather. When his grandmother passed away three years ago. Problem then rises as to what to do with the spirit tablets. According to Shen: “After my grandma past away there was no one left at Hong Kong to take care of the tablets. So my Dad decided to bring them here to Canada. They’re now on an altar in the living room. My parents burn incense and put it on the pot in front of the tablets every day, and put offerings on festivals like the New Year and some other occasions. I don’t remember all of them.” When asked about his religious beliefs he said: “My parents are Buddhist, but I am not particularly into any religion. But when my parents want me to bow to the tablets I do so. It’s just tradition, you know?” When asked what does he thinks or reminds him of when looking at the tablet or making an offering to it, he replied that: “My grandparents of course. And also the old house my grandma used to live in, all the times when we go there for family reunion and stuff.”  The example of Shen is a classical model of patrilineal inherent practice in the worship of ancestors. What’s different is that the tablet is being brought overseas and served for Shen as a reminder of his lineage as well as his homeland. The absence of ritual concerns over spirit tablet on his mother’s side shows the patrilineal nature of Chinese inherence and succession.

Another example emerged from the interviews is Jason (Si Yu) Wang, who was born in Canada. The story of his family is the very history of Chinese immigration. According to Wang, his family is of Hakka descent, which in itself is a story of long history of migration and Diaspora. His grandfather was born in the Fu-Jian province His grandfather left his hometown when he was still young. Part of the reason was his grandfather was one of those who rejected traditions as the cause of the backwardness of China and embraced western modernism and secularism, and got tired of the traditional lifestyle at home. In his journeys he met his future wife, and after the war broke out the grandparents of Wang fled to Taiwan along with thousands of other refugees. The rise of communism divided the two sides of the ocean, but not all communication was cut. According to Wang:”My grandfather told me that he heard news from the mainland about the destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution, when he heard that the ancestral hall of our family at the Home town was destroyed by the communists he decided to acquire a spirit tablet for the ancestors.” Whether it is out of a new found spirituality or nostalgia, Wang’s grandfather acquired a spirit tablet which became the centerpiece of their new domestic altar, and center of religious rituals and festivities.  The tablet he acquired was very simple, with only “Ancestors of the Wang family” and the Ancestral homeland on it. And according to Wang’s parents neither was the family too concerned with keeping up with every single religious festivals. Wang’s grandparents would have five children in Taiwan and among them is Wang’s father. Wang’s grandparents would manage to send Wang’s father abroad for study and eventually Wang’s father end up settling in Canada. When talking about the spirit tablet, Wang said that: “Every time we go back to Taiwan to my grandparents’ place, the first thing we do after we step into the house is light the incense and go in front of the altar. My parents always say: ‘go light the incense and tell the ancestors that you’re back home’.” When asked about where he considers as his “home” Wang replied that: “My home is at Toronto of course. I was born and raised here. But I also have two other ‘homeland.’ When people ask me about my ancestry I say Fu-Jian, but when people ask me where’s your family from I say Taiwan. I know it’s kind of weird but considering we Hakka people originally was from northern China, perhaps I have a third homeland as well! We migrate all over the place, build castles, yeah, castles(referring to the walled villages or Tu-Lou which is a style of architecture built to defend from wild animals, bandits, pirates, etc.),we survive and we triumph every time, everywhere. ” The conversation with Wang at this point went off-topic for a short while regarding the historical legacy of the Hakka people.

Back to the topic of spirit tablets, the tablet at the Wang household is unique in the sense that it was not born out of the normal inheritance process. Wang’s grandfather acquired the tablet after losing his homeland, and arguably his lineage by the destruction of the ancestral hall at home. The acquisition of the tablet re-established his link with his ancestors and thus his lineage even though he did not have any specific religious tendencies. Wang’s parents grew up receiving the knowledge of their ancestry and lineage, and with the aid of actual practice of offering and bowing internalized the knowledge of the imagined homeland, and eventually this knowledge would be passed on to Wang, by not only the retelling of the story of their family orally, but also visually and physically through the ritual of offering incense and bowing to the spirit tablet and acknowledging it as “coming home.” And the indication of yet another homeland in mainland China by the spirit tablet served to construct Wang’s imagination of the migrant Hakka identity.

The ability of Spirit tablet to influence the creation of an identity has many parallels. Miller D. describes objects have the ability to fade out of existence, yet shape the practice of people simply by the virtue of being present in the environment. As Miller put it “They are the landscape of our imagination, as well as the cultural environment to which we adapt. (Millar d. 2010, 53)While unlike the invisible objects described by Miller, the spirit tablets received all the attention in the world with the whole system of religious significances related to it. But for the younger generations who have being influenced by modernism and secularism those religious significances are often lost, especially for the young children growing up they wouldn’t and couldn’t completely comprehend the symbolism it conveys. Yet the spirit tablet being physically present in the environment, served as part of the system of things and objects. Children was brought up participating in the rituals and thus habitually tuned to the cultural values surrounding it.

Gannon, Martin J. 2001. Understanding global cultures: metaphorical journeys through 23 nations. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.

Leonard, Karen I. 2006. Immigrant faiths: transforming religious life in America. Lanham, MD [etc.]: AltaMira Press.

Martin, Emily. 1973. The cult of the dead in a Chinese village. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Miller, D. 2010) Stuff. London: Polity Press.

Miller, James. 2006. Chinese religions in contemporary societies. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Pan, Lynn. 1994. Sons of the yellow emperor: a history of the Chinese diaspora. New York: Kodansha International.

I have the news for a you!

Posted: April 12, 2012 by mahmerkhan in Uncategorized

Alright folks, my blog is up and running check it out. I have seen some of yours and they are pretty awesome. My essay was on the Djembe. I got news that there will be a performance tomorrow at 11 pm and its going to be hot wicked awesome. It involves three master players, it will be a show stopper. If you like world music or West African performances, this one is for you. Let me know if anyone wants to go we can make it a group thing.

Greetings djembefola,

We have a very exciting event planned for tomorrow night – Billy Nankouma Konate is in town very briefly, and he will be performing with Amara Kante and Amadou Kienou tomorrow evening (Friday, April 13) at approximately 11:00 pm, at 1591 Dundas St. W – to enter, go down the alley beside the Lula Lounge and through the gates on the right. Admission $10.
Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to see three world-class masters play together!
Hope to see you all there.
Also, just a quick reminder – the early registration deadline for the Grand Masters tour is TOMORROW, so get your registrations in by then to take advantage of the discounted workshop rates and secure your spot. Workshops are filling up fast!

Bolokelen Malinke Percussion
• Performances, demonstrations, Significant Events
• West African Djembe & Dunun classes & workshops
•  Beginners through Advanced, Youth & Adult
Anna Melnikoff, Artistic Director/Instructor

great job!

Posted: April 11, 2012 by mitsar in Uncategorized

Hey guys,

I don’t even know if you’re all reading this blog anymore but instead of writing my final two papers I’ve been “productively procrastinating” by reading some of your projects. I say productively because at least I’m not on facebook… ok I lied I totally have facebook open in another tab. But that’s not the point…
Nicely done! They’re all pretty interesting. Hope you guys have a great summer! And to those who are graduating, like me (fingers still crossed), good luck with all your future endeavours, may we meet again!!




oh p.s. check out my project! it’s only fair 😛

Final Assignment 2012

Posted: April 9, 2012 by lilzak in Uncategorized

Geraldine Chambers

 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.” ( 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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Posted: April 9, 2012 by janinemarie91 in Uncategorized

Hi guys, I hope everyone is happy about their papers finally being done  (Think about it, you can finally sleep, ahhh ‘cuz I sure will!) Good luck with the rest!