Ask anyone if wax print is African, and the most probable answer you'd receive is "yes".
Get more from the author, Richard Quashie, here
But please don't be deceived, wax print is not African, the only African thing about it is how it is rather killing ingenious African print.
The empire of wax prints has no borders, it stretches over a vast and limitless domain.
It's presence is defined from the narrow corridor of the Kinshasa textiles market to major trading centers like Dantokpa Market in Cotonou, Benin and Adawlato in Lomé, Togo. Even major fashions shows are now being dominated by the the one Almight Wax Print.
The Javanese printed wax, which was imported into Africa by Dutch merchants in the 19th Century has conquered the continent so well, it has evolved to become a "symbol of Africa", an imposed part of our black identity. But even with this stride, the African continent itself has fewer wax print production units, but it carries the notion "Made in Africa".
Take for example wax prints by Vlisco, the mega wax print company that has been heralding the "Creative Africa" mantra, not a single yard is produced in Africa. All its 70 million yards of fabric (about 64 million meters) are produced each year in the Netherlands from where 90% is shipped to Africa. In 2014, Africa alone made the Dutch company a turnover of 300 million euros.
It was through a series of historic quirks and intrepid entrepreneurship that Vlisco eventually emerged as the dominant player among several 19th-century Dutch, British and French companies vying for a slice of the lucrative trade — first in genuine, and later in reproductions — of wax-printed batiks from what was then called the Dutch East Indies and today is Indonesia.
By the end of the 19th century, Vlisco’s “wax hollandais” cloth was sold to Africans along the oceanic trading route back to Indonesia. As the years passed, patterns and color palettes were adapted to West and Central African tastes until, by the 1930s, Vlisco’s fabrics designed for the elite from that part of Africa had come to dominate the region’s import market.
Africans from Angola, Senegal, Ghana, Benin and the like, have consumed Vlisco’s product because down to the minutiae of the label, it appears to be unmistakably African. That similarity of "Africanness" has been sold by local vendors to wealthy and well-off Africans for more than a century.
On August 15 2016, the Dutch company celebrated its 170th anniversary by entrusting a few African creators with an anniversary collection. Waxophile creators such as Lanre Da Silva Ajayi and Stylista were not the only ones solicited for the campaign; stylists Loza Maleombho and Elie Kuamé, who usually prefer traditional African fabrics, were also hired by Vlisco.
The theme for the celebrations was “Female Empowerment‟ and the brand even donated GhS 8,750 (less than 2,000 Euros) to support to support one Najat Hussein’s education.
To illustrate how deep the idea that Vlisco is African runs, take for example Lebanese-Ivorian designer Elie Kuamé. When Vlisco asked him to make a collection for the celebration of African women, he immediately chose “Nana Benz” as theme. In this way, he could celebrate this business woman and elegance at the same time. He later said of his participation that thought wax print was not his usual choice, he understood the strong demand for the fabric.
"I only make timeless pieces, wax is not a fabric that I usually treat. I used Burkinabe loincloth in my last collection", he noted.
But tired of still being questioned on the wax, he burst "There are other fabrics but I am far from being stupid! I know there is a strong demand for this..."
Nelly Wandji with her Moonlook platform, prefers to encourage the development of the great variety of African fabrics and unsung techniques, often quite complex.
"It is a pity that an imported fabric is so shadowing to others that are really African. With the ecological questions of the moment, alternative textiles have as much value and will help develop the many unsung processes of the continent such as cotton weaving etc, rather than putting forward an allegedly African fabric sold to Africans, who brings no value to Africa."
In this context, Moonlook intends to give visibility to African designers and sell their creations in Europe . "There are more tales to tell than that of the Dutch wax" ensures Nelly. With the Ghanaian brand Christie Brown and her Afro-futuristic creations, Palm Style and chic raffia shoes, Zashadu and python bags, the Tongoro label, Re Bahia, Tsemaye Binitie there's a steady growth of another TRULY African fashion, freed from the clutches of the wax print.
This represents a shudder of revolt against the oppressive Dutch domination. A slight breeze, which does not yet announce a storm, but heralds a possibility of a new breath for African fashion.