An exhibition that runs through Dec. 15 brings the colorful print fabric beloved of West and Central African women to the galleries of Florida Tech’s Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts in Melbourne.
Organized by Exhibits USA/Mid-America Arts Alliance, “Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints” features myriad examples of the cloth. Although you don’t have to sew to enjoy this show, those for whom a fabric shop is a candy store will take especial delight in the wealth of fabric on display.
In addition to the samples that hang from dowels in neat ranks throughout the exhibition, a celebratory patchwork of material covers the walls in the central part of the gallery. Within that environment, 11 traditional dresses show off as many fabric designs to their best advantage: on the womanly form.
The basic dress is a two-piece number, with a form-fitting top and a long, straight skirt with flared hems or side pleats that allow for ease of movement. Rosettes, swags, ruffles and smocking of the same material are used for decorative effects.
The names of the patterns are as colorful as the prints themselves. One dress features plump hens encircled by chicks and eggs; that one is called “Happy Family.” The non-productive member of the household, the rooster, is represented only by his head, and that appears close to the fabric’s selvages. He is seen down low, at the skirt’s hem.
Make no mistake; these fabrics are all about women. They speak to women and – through colors and printed designs – speak for women. Another dress boasts the “King’s Chair” design of overlapping, truncated cones in blue, gold, red and white. In addition to its bold elegance, in Africa the pattern sends a non-verbal message: “Come, let’s sit and talk for a while.”
The exhibition, which began its tour of the U.S. in 2016 and is booked into 2021, was curated for Exhibits USA by Dr. Gifty Benson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A native of Ghana, Benson inherited some of the material on display from her mother. The Beatrice Benson Collection is now the property of African Hospitals Foundation in Tulsa, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Benson to help African hospitals in rural areas obtain equipment and supplies. AHF kindly lent that collection to FIT to expand the basic traveling exhibition for the Ruth Funk Center’s galleries.
Benson attests to the popularity of wax prints in the countries of Western Africa, especially on its western coast, from Senegal southward to Nigeria, and inland in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, among others.
In addition to dresses, women use the material for head wraps, as shawls and as baby slings.
Or, according to Benson, “say a very important person, like Barack Obama, visits your village. One of the women will take a piece of the fabric and put it on the ground for him to walk on. It serves as a red carpet.”
Now for the spoiler: African wax-printed fabric did not originate on that continent. Imported from Europe from the mid-19th century to the dawn of the 21st, African wax prints were made exclusively in the Netherlands and England.
Today a Dutch company, Vlisco, is the last European manufacturer of the material still in business. According to Benson, Vlisco exports about a half-billion dollars’ worth of cloth every year, with all but 5 percent of it going to Africa.
“Vlisco puts out new limited-edition fabrics every three months. You wait for them,” says Benson.
The last English manufacturer, ABC Wax, was purchased in 1992 by the Cha Group, a Chinese conglomerate. Today the Cha Group boasts that, with a production facility in Ghana, it holds the major share of the wax print market.
Why, then, does a fabric so much a part of African society have its origin in Europe?
The short answer is colonialism.
The Dutch East Indies was a territory in Asia that, from 1800, was administered by the Dutch government. The territory included Sumatra, Batavia, Java, the Moluccas and, after 1920, Borneo, the Celebes and the western half of New Guinea. In the aftermath of World War II, the Dutch East Indies became the independent nation of Indonesia.
In colonial times, Dutch trade with Java included the acquisition of batik cloth.
Javanese batik involved the laborious process of drawing traditional designs onto cotton cloth with hot wax. This was poured from a reed-handled tjanting, a small brass cup with a fine spout. The cooled wax thus applied formed a resist for the color, primarily indigo, with which the cloth was dyed. By removing the wax, reapplying it over the previously dyed part of the design and dying the cloth in a different hue, an intricate pattern of several colors could gradually be achieved.
Back home in the Netherlands, the entrepreneurial Dutch found the process too time consuming to be profitable until 1854, when a Belgian textile manufacturer refitted a machine to mass-produce prints that resembled batik. Intended for export, the fabric – with designs based on the Javanese originals – did not pass muster with its intended Asian audience. The Dutch then used the cloth as an item of trade in Africa.
Benson notes, “Dutch trading was the first exposure to Indonesian fabrics. The second was war.” To help keep its Asian territories under control, between 1837 and 1872 the Dutch crown recruited men from Ghana and Nigeria into the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. Those stationed in Java eventually returned home to Africa with batik fabric, which they distributed among family and friends. As a result, the African taste for cloth with Indonesian designs and colors was cultivated.
By the early 20th century, the fabric then known as “wax hollandaise” was being designed and produced in Europe, with its African audiences specifically in mind.
Recalling the days when Ghana was a British colony, Benson says, “when Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth, they made a special fabric edition for her. When Ghana was made independent in 1957, a fabric was made to mark that occasion.”
In the exhibition, a pre-Op Art design named in honor of Ghana’s first president after its independence was introduced by Vlisco in 1961. “Kwame Nkrumah’s Pencil” features rows of narrow lozenges (the ‘pencils’). Two examples of the design are in the exhibition; one on an electric pink background and one on azure.
To celebrate the election of America’s first African-American President, Vlisco released the “Heart of Barack” design. President and Mrs. Obama’s subsequent visits to Africa were celebrated by, among other Vlisco designs, “Michelle Obama’s Handbag” of 2008 and “Michelle’s Shoes” of 2011.
These and many other designs – including the intriguingly named “Peeled Orange,” “Water Well,” “Handcuffs” and “Cow Manure” (aka “Suzanne”) – can be seen in the exhibition, along with the print that inspired the show’s title.
“Wandering Spirit” is a calico print of stylized birds and flowers.
The story of African wax prints is one of long-distance, somewhat improbable, cultural contacts. These continuing international influences are well represented by “Wandering Spirit,” says Benson.