African Dutch Wax

The part of Toronto I live in is a pretty ethnically and racially mixed area. While I can’t give you its exact demographics, I think it would be pretty fair to say that a relatively large portion of the neighborhood is composed of people of West and Central African origin or descent. It is often referred to, lovingly, by my friend (who is herself the daughter of two Asian immigrants, and grew up in the area) as an immigrant ghetto. I myself being the daughter of two immigrants from Ghana, and also having had grown up in the area, have become quite accustomed to seeing, on any given day, small parades of women (and sometimes their spouses and children) covered head to toe in African print fabrics ( although, I must admit, this has become much less frequent over the years).

When I was younger I barely took any notice of these women or the beautiful multicoloured and intricately patterned textiles they dressed themselves in. I grew up in a household where (what seemed like small mountains of) similar fabrics were often lackadaisically arranged in cardboard boxes or large Rubbermaid bins, and were, at first, stored in the basement and then (when we moved) in the coat or spare master bedroom closets. These fabrics were rarely worn, and would remain untouched for years. Often I would forget that they were even there, and only after coming across them (frequently by chance) during an epic bout of spring cleaning would I be reminded of their existence. I would, upon their rediscovery, label them (if not literally than mentally) as “Ghana Stuff,” along with various other artifacts sent to us by family from the “motherland,” and then shove them back into the back of the closet where I had found them.

Having had grown up with African print fabrics just always being there, somewhere, in the background, I kind of  took them for granted, and rarely thought of their potential cultural or even familial significance. And since we were mainly sent these fabrics, via mail, from our Ghanaian relatives, I remained equally apathetic about their origins and their history. My thinking was we got the fabrics from Ghana and so they were Ghanaian. It never occurred to me that this might not necessarily be the case, and the fabrics that I had thoughtlessly labeled as, “Ghana Stuff,” were actually the products of an interwoven (no pun intended) history of the West African, Asian, and Dutch textile manufacturing industries. That is until I read Eccentric Yoruba’s great post “African Fabrics”: The History of Dutch Wax Prints” on Beyond Victoriana.

In the post, Yoruba outlines how she came to learn about the colonial and post-colonial histories as well as the European origins of these supposedly “African print fabrics,” which she eventually would learn are actually called Dutch wax prints. She begins by quoting well-known Nigerian- British artist, Yinka Shonibare, who has argued that “A picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe; an image of “African fabric” isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African.” Through her examination of the history and the origins of these textiles,Yoruba seems to be asking in which context could or should Dutch wax print fabrics be thought of as “authentically” African.

West Africa, has had and continues to have a vital role in the development and growth of the Dutch batik print industry, (in fact the survival of the industry was the result of Dutch manufacturers recognizing the demand for such fabrics in West Africa and redesigning their prints to suit the taste of their customer base), and thus the question of whether or not these prints should be viewed as “authentically” African becomes a complicated one to answer. By focusing on textiles, Yoruba problematizes the notion of cultural “authenticity,” and for me, hammers home the extent to which “authenticity” can be, ironically, rooted in wholly constructed ideas about a region and the cultures of people who inhabit it. Sure, the Dutch wax fabrics that many West African prints are printed on, are (mostly) not being produced in the region, but as the market for these types of fabrics has grown and continues to grow, the textiles, as a result, are constantly being assimilated into various local cultures. And so like clothing and fashion everywhere, Dutch wax print fabrics have come to represent one way Africans can visually express themselves, communicate their aesthetics and even their values sartorially.

My mother comes from a family of former small time  Ghanaian clothing manufacturers and designers, who had often imported European fabrics to produce clothes designed specifically for the West African market. Though her family did not use Dutch wax print fabrics in either their clothes or as part of their designs, she grew up with both a fondness and appreciation for these prints and how and why they were worn. So much so that she would often use them to make clothing while she worked as a seamstress part-time to make extra money when she first arrived to Canada. When I discussed with her the issue of authenticity brought up by the post, she outlined a (perhaps somewhat nostalgic) 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, plus many major Dutch wax fabric manufacruers, as Yoruba also points out, like Woodin (a subsidiary of Holland’s Vlisco) are based in West Africa, primarily Ghana. So, she feels that because the designs of the prints are locally inspired and the fact that they are, in some cases, locally manufactured makes them African, specifically Ghanaian, and so because of this the European origin of the textiles, to her, doesn’t undermine their authenticity.

(Image Credit: Beyond Victoriana via Vlisco)

Of  course, as Yoruba notes, this is easily complicated by the fact that as a result of their popularity, European, (and now increasingly Chinese) Dutch wax fabrics may be, in some cases, undermining local West African textile industries by “driving locally produced fabrics out of the market.”

But, by looking into what we consider authentic or inauthentic and what informs these ideas through textiles, Yoruba has found another way for us to potentially understand how we construct aspects of our racial and/or ethnic identities. For me, it would be difficult, bordering on near impossible to mentally disassociate 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. And it is for this reason that I know that whenever I am motivated enough to do another major spring clean and I inevitably come across the many boxes that clutter my closets that  are filled with these fabrics (and which were at some point sent lovingly in battered cardboard boxes via DHL), I will spend, perhaps, a couple of minutes looking them over and then probably shove them back to the back of the closet and then my mind, where they’ll stay for maybe another half a decade filed under “Ghana Stuff.” For some reason, for me, that makes them authentically “African,” or at least African enough.

Photo Note: The  image at the beginning of the  post was taken from Adire African Textiles, and the picture is taken from a postcard from 1904. The caption underneath reads, “Vintage postcard, “Fantee women”, mailed 1904. The Fante, who live along the coast of Ghana to the west of Accra, do not weave themselves, but wore a wide variety of textiles locally imported from the Ewe and Asante, as well as European and Indian made fabrics. Here the lady seated at front right wears a cloth woven by a male Ewe weaver in what today is the eastern Volta region of Ghana. This type of Ewe cloth with groups of three weft face blocks rather than two, seems to be more typical of the C19th.”

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6 thoughts on “African Dutch Wax

  1. Fantastic post: I have never really considered the business of prints and their origins. Thanks.

  2. the idler says:

    Thanks. As I have probably made very clear in my post, neither did I.

  3. [...] 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 [...]

  4. [...] The Ethnic Aisle, so please check me out there.  It’s a edited and refined version of my “African Dutch Wax” [...]

  5. Louise says:

    I recently visited Calgary to see friends, when we ended up in a thrift shop where a fascinating piece of fabric caught my eye. It was brown and cream and batik-y and said ‘Dutch wax’ along the edge. I looked it up on my phone and decided that the $9 price tag (for three meters) was worth it. Thus a new world has opened up to me that I previously didn’t even know existed. I’ll definitely be exploring this more.

  6. […] dresses, a fabric so full of history and agency that would deserve a post on its right.  Dutch wax is the hard, colored, pattern fabric that the Netherlands found in Java, industrialized and sold in […]

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