Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Dutch Wax as a Symbol of African Identity

Colourfully ornate Dutch Wax or Wax Prints are big business for women traders appropriately referred to as Nana-Benz in West-African countries such as Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana by virtue of the affordability of the German car. The intriguing history of these mobile canvases of art-work ubiquitously reputed to be the quintessential African fabric and a proudly-adorned symbol for African solidarity / black consciousness is perhaps not that well recognised. Originally a cheaply produced imitation of Javanese batik by the Dutch in the 19th Century in a bid to penetrate and in an oh-so-colonial way take over the market, and unsuccessfully so might I add, the Dutch Wax prints landed a more favourable market in the Gold Coast (as the Europeans called it then). The rest as they say is history. Today, in West and Central Africa and further afield in metropolises like Nairobi or Cape Town, Wax Prints have been embraced as a fashionable, back-to-the-roots attire, effortlessly reflected on the streets, catwalks and glossy women’s magazines.

Interestingly (well, at least for the techno-enthusiasts), the misleading name Dutch Wax or Wax Prints was a fabrication (excuse the pun) intended to compete with the hand-made Javanese batiks that were laboriously depicted with the use of wax. Apparently the Javanese women drew the motifs on woven cloth as a form of meditation – how beautiful is that! Conversely, the European machine-made fabrics used dye-resist resin to design the motifs. The Dutch Wax "brand", however, is used to this day and sought after in colourful stacks of folded textiles in market stalls as a symbol of quality. Initially a unique commodity as the sole European production purely for export to the African market, this is now changing with production as far as China and closer to home in Ghana and Nigeria. Naturally, the lower prices of the Chinese-made fabrics have raised a lot of concerns for local producers as has the contestable quality in some instances, for consumers.

What is fascinating is that this once upon a time purely European production was quickly appropriated, embraced and integrated as a means of self-expression. It is a possibility that this was only so because the Dutch were viewed as well-meaning traders as opposed to colonial masters in their West-African niche. Therefore trading with them as opposed to the British for instance, was probably a rebellion of sorts. Regardless, despite its history, this style of fabric has been integrated and achieved local meaning in the design and hierarchy of its styles that it is unquestionably African. This is perceptively asserted in an interview with Nina Sylvanus, a social anthropologist from UCLA, simply but ingeniously with the phrase “the use is its meaning”. An example to illustrate this is that spaghetti’s origins are inarguably a copy of Chinese noodles since the days of the Italian explorer Marco Polo. However, no one would query spaghetti as authentically Italian. On a complete diversion, I was intrigued to stumble across Dr Sylvanus’ work and can not imagine the looks I would have got from my parents had I proclaimed I would be embarking on a PhD to research The Fabric of Africanity. Actually, who am I kidding - even if I knew people were actually researching this, I would not have dared. It simply would not have crossed my mind as an option...And then we are left wondering why non-Africans appear to be more interested in examining and documenting our culture? Alas, that is a topic for another day.


Olumide Abimbola said...

I am a Nigerian anthropologist who is currently doing PhD research on the transnational trade in used clothing. I do not focus on consumption - that is what Nina does with 'African' fabrics, and Karen Tranberg Hansen with used clothing in Gambia - but I focus on the trade itself, the rich human interactions that underlie the trade, and the networkings that sustain the trade.

I am wondering really whether we Africans don't study our own culture. The native anthropologist has been a classical problem in anthropology. Doing fieldwork in Cotonou with Nigerian traders, I sometimes do not know what is important and what is not, and sometimes, it is only after reading some work written by a non-African anthropologist that I remind myself that everything I see is important.... I don't know whether you get my drift.

Anyway, I am glad to have stumbled upon this post.


Sci-culturist said...

hey Olumide, thanks for stopping by. you raise a number of important points and kudos to you for doing anthropology in West Africa. we need people like you! i secretly wish i studied Anthropology as it is so fascinating! but, yes, sometimes we need to hear an objective view seen with fresh eyes to appreciate what we may view as "normal" or mundane. i've bookmarked your blog for an in-depth read later.