￼How we made wax print ours.
- Origins: how wax print cloth became African
- How it became part of “our” culture.
- Cloth into language
- Money by the yard
- Pride, a deeper love
This is a story of one fabric and how it came to symbolise a continent, it’s people and their struggle for freedom. Ankara as it is known in West Africa and Kitenge in East Africa is not only instantly recognizable but is intimately woven into the culture, traditions, and identity of the continent. Bold and colourful with a multitude of patterns and designs, no other textile springs to life with such rich narrative. Like so many African legends, this story begins with theft.
Origins: we made wax print cloth African
African wax print, did not come from Africa, but we made it African. The fabric was introduced to West and Central Africa by Dutch merchants during the 19th century, who had stolen the concept from native Indonesian designs. During the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia, Dutch merchants and administrators, less a moment of inspiration and more of greed, stole the original batik technique (Batik is a technique of wax-resistant dyeing applied to the whole cloth) and sold it on to the owners of textile factories in the Netherlands. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) tried to machine manufacture batik in bulk and thereby crowd out local artisans.
Transformed into something more
Their factory printed cloth, however, developed “cracks” in the wax, and subsequently in the dye, which made it unattractive to the Javanese. These same “cracks” became more characteristic of African fabric and were appreciated for ensuring that no two pieces could ever be the same. The Dutch, noting the coin to made, quickly pivoted to the West African coast.
Debates about the authenticity of African print or Dutch wax as it is also called, flare up regularly, with some arguing the fabric is un-African, even Dutch. But it is the introduction into West African marketplaces, particularly Ghana, that the fabric transformed into something more. The Ghanaians were the first Africans to encounter the print and brought it into their own culture it by fusing it with African art, traditions, and fashion before it spread to other West African countries. Ghana’s traditional hand-woven kente cloth has also inspired many of the colours and patterns of wax print cloth designs, all of which are very popular throughout West Africa today. The creative imperative is thus more authentic by the transformative action upon its original context. And so wax print cloth was Africanised.
Cloth into language
This process would continue in a deeper cultural osmotic fashion. Women used the fabrics as a method of communication and expression, with certain patterns being used as a shared language, with widely understood meanings. Over the decades, designs such as “sword of kinship,” “the ungrateful husband” and “you fly, I fly” remain bestsellers because they so successfully match the tastes of their African clientele. Further evolution of the cloth included other colour palettes and patterns integrated to match local demands, relegating the factory-made fabric as somewhat superfluous. The anthropological inner movement of the wax print is loaded and significant. It has developed to be an integral part of West African culture and fashion. Many prints in Ghana have local Akan proverbs attached to them, offering a non-verbal form of communication between the person wearing the cloth and the people around them. Each design and colour can reflect local traditions and symbols such as the tribe, marriage and social status of the wearer. As such, some African women use them as a non-verbal way of communication.
This short form communication evolved across all social strata to include praise for political heroes, to commemorate historical events, and to assert social identities, but also as a form of rhetoric, especially important amongst Ghanaian women.
As European Colonialism finally ended in the 1960s, the new-found freedom for the continent meant it became a symbol of African independence and identity.Being absorbed into the culture was the first step, but the firm connection to identity solidified the bond. By its very African-ness, inspired and wholly owned designs encouraged it to be used as formal wear by leaders, diplomats, and the wealthy.
Today, designer Claude Kameni has dressed Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi as well as multi-award-winning actress Viola Davis, singer Janet Jackson for her music video, “Made For Now”, Tiwa Savage, Porsha Williams, Kelly Rowland, Bria Myles, Amanda Seales, and Tracee Ellis Ross. He’s also the official designer for singer Mr Eazi’s Life is Eazi Tour.
Money by the yard
Today Ankara is big business. In Sub-Saharan Africa these textiles have an annual sales volume of 2.1 billion yards, with an average production cost of US$2.6 billion and retail value of US$4 billion
Ghana has an annual consumption of textiles of about 130 million yards (120 million metres). The three largest local manufacturers, Akosombo Textiles Limited (ATL), Ghana Textiles Print (GTP), and Printex, produce 30 million yards. The Vlisco Group, owner of the Vlisco, Uniwax, Woodin, and GTP brands, produces over 70 million yards, some of it in the Netherlands.
This has spurred on counterfeiters to take advantage. Modern European and Asian prints have detrimental effects on the demand and profits for more traditional, locally produced fabrics. Fake-Vlisco prints from China have also captured a significant share of the market with 100 million yards coming from inexpensive, smuggled Asian imports.
Pride, a deeper love
Ankara is to be worn with pride. As we celebrate Africa Day, it is important to reflect on the corner stones of our shared African culture and know there is strength and value in something more than just cloth, but a tie that binds us all.
C.S.A.’s monthly cultural portal, The WIRE connects the dots of culture. With concise stories, many with video content, take a premium dive into the world of African entertainment & cultural fluidity. It’s one thing to be hip to what’s happening but it is another to know why.
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