This month we have just taken delivery of a set range of Babatunde for Kudu laptop sleeves. I have one for my laptop and have been using it for over a year and it still looks great. There is something so joyful about wax print that even something as boring-looking as a laptop looks better with a cool African cover. In a previous post [pls link to the post here ]I asked the question of what makes something look ‘African’. Why do we associate wax print with a look that is instantly ‘African’?
For much of central and West Africa wax print cloth- also referred to as Dutch wax cloth and ‘Ankara’ is integral to fashion and cultural life there. It is worn most often as formal wear for church, celebrations, weddings, inaugurations, graduations. It is part of traditional African culture yet in the case of African wax print things are not as straightforward as they seem…
The cloth was introduced to the African continent in the nineteenth century via Indonesia, which was at the time a Dutch colony. The Indonesian fabric treatment called batik is a method whereby wax or resin is used to mark out a pattern that will resist dye. The part that has not been marked with wax will therefore absorb the dye. The absence of dye on the part that has been marked with the wax stands out; beautiful patterns can be created and several colours can be used on the same cloth. Another feature of batik cloth is that the pattern is just a vibrant on the reverse as it is on the front.
There are several theories as to why wax cloth gained was so readily adopted in West Africa. One is that the British and Dutch sought to find new markets for the burgeoning factory-produced textile industry by flooding their colonies with mass-produced cloth. The Dutch tried to introduce the mass-produced batik to Indonesia where was poorly-received, with local preferring their traditionally-produced batik so the focus switched to Africa. There was already a long history of European trade with Africa (including, sadly the slave trade) and Africa was a key stop-off point for trade ships. Another theory is that Africans who had served as indentured soldiers and labourers for the Dutch in Indonesia brought batik cloth back home as gifts for their wives and relatives where it became a symbol of status. The Europeans realised that Africa was a much more receptive market for this cloth than Asia and they then switched design and production of this cloth to cater specifically for the African market.
Real wax print cloth is made with high-quality cotton and the selvedge has the name of the cloth and the maker printed on it. Being a high-quality product it is also quite expensive. The market leaders are undoubtedly Dutch-owned Vlisco and British-owned ABC Wax. In recent years Chinese producers have entered the market and this has caused friction with Vlisco which has taken issue with what it claims are copies of their trademarked designs. Consumers however, are very price-conscious and the issue of intellectual property is not always an immediate criterion for making a purchase of wax print cloth. Read more about this HERE. This decade there has been a resurgence of pride and interest in the African continent as a source of contemporary style and artistic inspiration. I was delighted to partner with Babatunde to stock some of its lovely products that incorporate wax print cloth.
If you have never seen somebody dressed for church or ready for a formal occasion in an outfit made of wax print then go onto pinterest and you will see many examples of beautiful dresses and clothes made with this cloth. These days wax print has been embraced by a younger generation wanting to celebrate their cultural heritage and wax print is contemporary and fashionable again, rather than only for formalwear.
As a someone who loves African contemporary art I would be remiss if I did not mention the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. He uses wax print cloth in his work to explore cultural identity, particularly in a colonial and post-colonial context.
If you feel like stretching your brain a little here is a link to Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian- British philosopher, cultural theorist and intellectual heavyweight in one of the BBC Reith Lectures he gave this year in his ‘Mistaken Identities’ series. This one is on Culture.
Portrait credit: www.bbc.co.uk
To summarise, in the case of an iconic African cloth that is associated with Africa we have seen that culture is not static. It is a fluid concept and borrows, evolves and share influences from outside just as much as it creates and sifts from within particular cultures. African culture is not homogenous; things that are ‘African’ are not always what they might seem.
Yours, bringing Africa home.