AFRICAN PRINTS: THE BITTER RAW TRUTH THEY KEEP HIDDEN FROM US

AFRICAN PRINTS: THE BITTER RAW TRUTH THEY KEEP HIDDEN FROM US

The instant you catch a glimpse of a vibrant fabric filled with asymmetric patterns and bold, contrasting colours, your brain immediately recognizes what you're looking at without requiring a second sneak peak. You're looking at an African print fabric. African prints have been widely adopted into African cultures, which has resulted to an annual retail value of the fabric to a jaw-dropping US$4 billion. 


However, there is one thing African Print manufacturers will fail to tell you.


Before I give you the horribly bitter truth regarding African Prints, let's get to know "African Prints" a tad better. 

Depending on your exposure to African print fabric or your country of residence, African Print fabric is normally referred to by it's brand or local manufacturer name. African prints are divided into 2 broad categories which are Real wax and Imi wax prints.

 

Real Wax Prints: Real wax is the industrial version of the traditional batik cloth, and is essentially the most expensive. This African Print fabric is identified by having wax print on both sides of the fabric in addition to its' "crackle" that is caused during the manufacturing process. The "crackle" process that arises from the manufacturing process is unique to each fabric thereby increasing the monetary value of the fabric as it is seen as more valuable. This type of wax is produced in Nigeria, Holland, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and China. 



Crackle effect on fabric, Image source: spoonflower.com


Imi Wax Prints: This type of print fabric is roller printed, thereby no "crackle" is created during the manufacturing process. Should there be a "crackle" on the fabric then it is merely an imitation. Imi wax designs only contain prints on one side unlike real wax prints. 


Let's go on a quick trip to the past (keep this in mind as you will need it later on)


In the past, African print was created from the traditional batik. Batik- which was perfected by the Javanese just before the thirteenth century- has sacred importance as many associate it with child birth, initiation, marriage and ultimately death. Just before the Javanese were colonized, they mastered the creation of high level batik artistry. To create their batik designs they would first apply wax to a cloth and later dye over the wax in order to create a pattern. 


Under the colonized rule of the Indians, Chinese and Islamic clerics, the Javanese gained exposure to various cultures and ideas which influenced the themes on their batik. During the seventeenth century the Javanese were under the rule of the Dutch which resulted in the introduction of Javanese batik to the European market. From there, the Dutch- alongside a few European firms- established a market for the exotic, machine-made batik which later became known as wax print. 


The wax print was created through a mechanical method that involved resin being applied to both sides of the cotton fabric. During this manufacturing process the resin would crack and the dye would seep into the cracks, resulting in a 'crackle' appearance on the fabric. Both the Europeans and the Javanese considered this manufactured product as imperfect and not worth their money.


So where does Africa fit into the picture in all of this?




Initially, wax prints were introduced to West Africa through Christian missionaries that used the prints for converts, followed by Ghanaian soldiers that brought the batik back home with them from the war. ( These West African soldiers had been enlisted by the Dutch colonial army to settle any local coups in the then Dutch East Indies. )


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Dutch decided to introduce the wax prints to the West African markets. Wax print fabric gained staggering popularity as West African consumers considered the 'crackles' in the fabric as unique rather than as imperfections. The exponential exposure of wax prints to the African market caused an influx of the exportation of wax prints to Africa. 


African buyers began to identify and name the various prints through the use of slogans, proverbs, puns, catch phrases and catch words. Even though the print patterns on the fabric were in no way connected to the names given by African consumers nor contained even a line of African  content, retailers adopted this as their marketing strategy. 


Now let's connect the dots




If African prints were introduced to Africa by the Europeans, and if the prints in no way contain even a line of African content, what does that tell you? 


African print fabrics are not from Africa. 


Instead, they originated from the Javanese  who lived in Indonesia, formally known as the Dutch East Indies. 





Unfortunately, one could say that this dreadful misnomer continues to blindly deceive the African consumer to this very day.


Unfortunately, one could say that this dreadful misnomer continues to blindly deceive the African consumer to this very day.

Even though this fabric oozing vibrant colour and bold asymmetric shapes has been identified as one that symbolizes West African fashion, the time has come for us to start supporting African designers and textile firms whose fabrics speak to us in our African dialects and languages, and boldly share our untold stories.


You can view textile firms based in Africa here:  https://africantextiles.africa/about/

As I always say, the time for Africa to rise and tell her story is NOW. What is your take on this topic? Let me know in the comments below


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