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Lost wax method


The pageantry of Western African women swathed in exoticallypatterned cottons is a fairly common sight in most cosmopolitan cities. Around the Metro station Barbès Rouchechouart in Paris’ north for instance, the bustling streets of the bargain shop district are a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours and artfully plieéd head wraps. The veritable wax hollandaise fabrics stand out as a globally-recognised symbol of the culturally-authentic African women in the European capitals. Transpose this image to the streets of Abidian or Ouagadougou and there is a similar textile narrative. But now, the position of the Real Dutch wax textiles and of course, the global fashion system they are part of is undergoing an upheaval with the influx of low-cost copies from China streaming on to the African market. The complicated post-colonial history of Africa and Europe played out in this textile now has the dimension of modern globalisation and commercialisation to add to its story. Western African women choose the real Dutch wax fabrics for their quality and strong reputation. John Picton in the article ‘Laughing at Ourselves’ in Yinka Shonibare, Double Dutch, writes that African women’s cloth-conscious eyes and fingers are adept at distinguishing quality print cloths from cheap versions in an instant. The Dutch wax and local waxprinted textiles have co-existed for many decades and the imported European fabrics are appreciated for their random quality of the print and colour fastness. The original wax print method was, writes Picton, developed by a Belgian factory, Previnaire & Co. A duplex roller system printed hot resin on both sides of the cloth in the same time, giving the appearance of Indonesian batik. So crucial are these real Dutch wax textiles to the Western African people that British-born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare uses the fabrics to deconstruct issues of cultural and consumer-based identity, and notions of authenticity. By dressing figures of Western art history in Dutch wax he subverts our perception of Western society, history and African post-colonial identity. The real Dutch wax textiles are designed and produced by the Vlisco company in grey ol’ Holland. The origins of this trade relationship is a long one, its roots are in the gold and spice trade route along the West African coast where the Dutch established bases on their way to the Dutch Indies. According to Hank Bremmer from Vlisco, on their way back to Java in the mid-1800s, a Dutch merchant family, the van Vlissingens, started trading and then producing Javanese textiles to sell back to the locals. It was not a success but on

route, the company boats docked on the West African coast in modern-day Ghana where the textiles proved popular with the residents. At the same time, Africans recruited to fight the Dutch colonialists’ battles in Java replaced worn out clothing with Javanese wax-resist fabrics and brought them home after fighting ceased. By the early 1900s Javanese textiles were the height of fashion and aware of the market potential Vlisco and other factories in Holland, Belgium and the UK started producing the ‘African-style’ fabrics. This taste for the Javanese wax-resist printed fabrics spread and evolved into more local-looking designs supplied by the Dutch company and today regional taste variations in pattern, colours and styles are maintained in seasonal collections by Vlisco. Emblems of the local chiefdom’s authority, icons that allowed for group identification and representation at gatherings and representations of regional proverbs are popular in the West African market. The Real Dutch Wax fabrics are essential to the identity of West African fashion and have had an unrivalled position for over 100 years. This season’s Ghana wax block print collection has a tea ceremony image and an abstract design of half empty (or should that be half full?) bottles. Hank Bremmer explains that for the Nigerian collections lots of golden yellow and bright red are used, the Congolese like mixtures of yellows, greens, reds, purples and white. For Ghana, the marble effect is popular and Côte d’Ivorians like block-print colours. For now, the shifting trade winds are having little impact on these Southeast Asian-inspired, European-produced African textiles. Threats from copiers are not new. Early last century, Vlisco tried to sue a Japanese company for copyright infringement. Now factories in China, Indonesia and Pakistan are among a new wave of suppliers happy to make copies of the resin-resist designs. However, discerning Western African women know the quality of the fabric instinctively. They also know that after one wash the cheap copies lose their colour and structure. They buy real Dutch Wax from the specialist stores. The beauty of the Dutch wax textiles is their explosive repetition of colour and pattern which somehow imply the energy, the music, the people, the expanse of the continent. However, if our view of Africa is a literal reading into the symbolism of the fabrics then our perception is also naive. Even if the authenticity of the cloth is only in its truly interesting cultural, commercial and historic melange its quality, design, spirit and workmanship will continue to keep this particular Euro-African relationship alive. ••• Patricia Brien


Man selling traditional cloth, Kano, Nigeria. Paul Almasy/Corbis

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