“African Fabrics”: The History of Dutch Wax Prints

I’ve got a new guest blog over at Beyond Victoriana on African wax fabrics, specifically on their ‘untold’ history.

Such a cute image

“A picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe, an image of “African fabric” isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African”.

These above words are quoted by Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian-British contemporary artist known for his amazing artwork using African print fabrics in his scrutiny of colonialism and post-colonialism. What is commonly known as “African fabric” goes by a multitude of names: Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais. I grew up calling them ankara and although they’ve always been a huge symbol of my Nigerian and African identity, I had no idea of the complex and culturally diverse history behind the very familiar fabrics until I discovered Yinka Shonibare and his art.

I know I personally felt shocked upon learning that the “African” fabrics I grew up loving and admiring were not really “African” in their origins (or is it?). This put things in perspective, however, as it suddenly made sense that my mother’s friends regularly travelled to European countries, including Switzerland and England, to purchase these fabrics and expensive laces to sell them again in Nigeria. In an attempt to join this lucrative business, my mother once dragged me with her to a fabric store while on holiday in London. I was not 13 years old then and I recall being surprised to find such familiar fabrics on sale outside Nigeria. Regardless, I never imagined that the history of this African fabric, henceforth referred to as Dutch wax print, spanned over centuries, across three continents and bridging various power structures. Read more!

I had fun times researching for and writing this essay and I hope you enjoy reading it. I wrote this for Ay-leen so I will not be cross posting, head over to Beyond Victoriana to read my essay in its entirety.

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5 responses

  1. I really enjoyed your article!!! It is interesting to see that Indonesia is the origin, I didn’t know that!!! Interestingly enough, I just wrote an article on the interaction between China and Africa in the textile industry (looking more at economic costs and benefits). You did raise the question of how textile from China might affect the trade between Africa and Europe. That would be another interesting research topic!!! Keep up the good work Eccentric! I really love that you write about things that a lot of Africans are unaware of, like the history of our textile and clothing :)

    • I’m so thrilled you enjoy it! Thanks for all the !!!s XD

      You write articles that I want to read. China and Africa in the textile industry? I remember glossing over that while researching for my dissertation.

  2. Hi ECC,

    Are you contributing something for the Online Conference on Islamic Feminism? You can send me an old favourite post if you like. Looking forward to hearing from you. I want to publicise the Conference and publish the essays/articles by the 20th.

    Thanks!

  3. I second. this article was quite interesting, the indonesia facotr included. I remember looking at some of my indonesian friend’s fabrics and thinking, that does look straight up like something someone would be rocking at some African social…lol.

    I had no idea that there were fabric “name brands”… of course I’ve heard my mother talk about levels of fabric quality (something to do with the amount of starch in it, I think)… Maybe it’s a little different for Sierra Leoneans?

    at any rate, thanks.

    • My aunt once told me that the best place to buy ankara is Indonesia, that was before I read or knew anything about the history. I’m so surprised you didn’t know of the fabric brands, seriously I’ve become the expert in telling brands just from looking at the designs (‘Oh that must be Da Viva!’ and ‘Are you wearing Vlisco?!’).

      I’ve heard of the starch quantity as well but that is usually in reference to fabrics that we call ‘Guinea’ or ‘Senegalese’, NOT Dutch wax. I suspect the Dutch wax sold in Sierra Leone will be the same sold in Ghana and Nigeria (I’m working with brand names here) but when it comes to other kinds of fabrics then I’m sure it’s different.

      Thanks for reading.

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