African wax print fabrics tell a story about global politics, culture, and economy that’s as colorful as the prints themselves. The short version of its history goes like this: the Dutch learned about batik from the Indonesians and imitated this process, hoping to factory-produce similar fabric at a cheaper price. Like a mid-1800s version of Walmart, their success would have run the local, traditional artisans out of business, but the Indonesians turned up their noses at the Dutch copies, preventing such a fate. Then, laden with unsold fabrics, Dutch ships found a market for their product in another portion of their trade route: the African “gold coast” (Ghana). The rest is Euro-African history. For over 150 years Dutch wax fabrics have not only reigned in the textile market of West Africa but their popularity quickly spread South and East, into Central Africa, including our area of special focus: DR Congo.
Yes, you heard right: Dutch wax cloth was produced by Europeans imitating Asians but sold to Africans–talk about a global marketplace. What makes these fabrics African, then, is not who produces them but how they are used and who gives them social value. Wax fabrics designed in Europe are imported into African countries and sold by entrepeneurs who often serve as arbiters of taste, naming the fabrics and popularizing certain designs. In the 1980s this was such a lucrative position that women sellers, like the ones in Togo, earned the name “Nana Benz” because their business was so profitable they could afford Mercedes’ in a place where many couldn’t afford cars at all. Wherever Dutch wax fabrics are sold in Africa, they serve as a strong sign of class and wealth; only well-heeled folk can afford to purchase them for tailor-made clothes. The symbol of the bird in the egg above the “Super Wax” shop sign is popular west African fabric design called “money flies” (meaning: money gives you wings), celebrating the comforts that come with being economically stable. This is no small thing to appreciate when steady sources of income are threatened or scarce, which is commonplace in unevenly developed areas and failed/weak states.
Those who make it beyond “comfortable” to “wealthy” will likely buy from Vlisco, a Dutch wax company (established 1847) considered the haute couture of Dutch wax fabrics. They have only six physical storefronts worldwide; five of them are in Africa, including one store in DR Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa. These retail locations sell not only the fabric but a line of designer clothing; the company has begun marketing themselves as a fashion designer to stay competitive, since China and Japan have been producing Dutch wax imitations; the photo on the right comes from one of Vlisco’s recent collections. Many of their patterns are stunning, colorful, geometrical designs like this one; these patterns have gained broader global appeal in the last few years, and many are being used in US and European fashion and interior design.
Fabrics with culturally specific meanings, however, often do not have the same appeal in the West and are infrequently sold or even seen outside of particular regions in Africa. Many of these designs are printed only once and reflect a specific historical moment, a current social concern, or popular opinion. The equivalent of a bumper sticker, these designs deliver a punchy endorsement or criticism. For instance, in 2002, I remember an anti-polygamy cloth pattern in Congo splashed with “one plus one” monogamy mathematics. In the summer of 2010, Bizi sent me an outfit made of “50th anniversary of DRC’s independence” fabric, reflecting national pride. The design pictured in pink, red and green was made for March 8th, International Woman’s Day, showing a community of women gathered together in the center, surrounded by ladies in a wide variety of professions; the cloth is spattered with printed messages, such as one denouncing violence against women. These types of designs often contain text that reflects serious social concerns and leaves no mystery about their meaning.
The meaning of other designs cannot not be readily understood unless you know their names. Meanings vary by area, sometimes reflecting a place’s proverbs, current events, and the mood or innovation of individual entrepreneurs. For instance, since the image of a caged bird has been used heavily in Western fiction to symbolize forms of oppression, some looking at the design on the right might be tempted to read this image as a celebration of freedom. However, in this case, flying out is a sign of trouble; the pattern’s name delivers a sassy dissuasion to would-be cheaters: “You go out, I go out!” Meanings like this reflect not only historically eventful but domestic, everyday things happening in the lives of those who are selling and wearing the design. This is an area of expression particularly open for women to voice opinions and concerns, as the designs we’ve examined suggest.
Vlisco’s “bougies” pattern represents how an area’s history shapes what people yearn for and how they express it; this pattern registers a complex relation between textile, design, and politics. You can’t see the writing on the spark plugs at this size, but it says 1940, because that is the original date of the fabric’s first manufacture. I happened to stumble across the history of this design while reading a 1950s travel book. Shortly before independence (1960), Felice Bellotti wrote a travelogue titled “The Fabulous Congo” in which he explains the role of textiles that shaped as well as reflected DR Congo’s history. At the time, DR Congo’s eastern mining sector was booming; this made many Europeans extremely rich, while local Congolese generally got little except harsh working and living conditions. Desperate for laborers in the mines, officials used red blankets to trap local men into working contracts they did not fully understand. Acceptance of the blanket was legally recognized by the Belgian government as the equivalent of signing a working contract of several years in length. Felice mentions that every Congolese man he spoke to in the mines claimed he was there against his will; many were looking for an opportunity to escape conditions that paid next to nothing and exposed them to risk and disease. Only one man he met expressed contentment in his job–a man who served drinks to the the expatriates in the mining camp’s club; away from collapsing tunnels and sweaty labor, and he admitted to Felice that he took a sip out of each glass of liquor before he served it, which may account for his feelings of compensation.
Expatriates’ wealth was far from a well-kept secret in colonial DR Congo; they flaunted it and competed with each other openly. For instance, public buzz surrounded the six-cylinder car because mining officials had brought some over at great expense and cock-crowed around them in showy displays of “I’m richer than you are.” The six-cylinder car became, as a result, a very public but generally elusive status symbol for Congolese who would never significantly benefit from the wealth coming out of those mines. A Congolese expression arose: “six bougies” or “six spark plugs” became code for a premium standard of excellence. Men who knew how to compliment a woman’s good looks began calling the most stunning among them “six spark plugs,” prompting a Dutch wax producer to make the “6 bougies” pattern; it became wildly popular. I was startled to see that, in February, Vlisco just released their “New History” collection, and one of their patterns updates the expression, using the V8 motor. As you see, the new pattern shows “8 bougies” or “8 spark plugs” and the current year, 2011. The dandy in the center with his cuban cigar and three-piece suit emphasizes the point: “having class” means belonging to a certain class. Bougie, indeed.
While some patterns, like the “bougies” series, show it more spectacularly than others, wax print fabric, by virtue of what it is, stages contemporary negotiations about African identity and imperial history. Artist Yinka Shonibare is perhaps the most famous contemporary artist to use Dutch wax fabrics as a means to explore and express that relationship; on the left you see one of his exhibited installations discussed on The National Museum of African Art’s site: “Leisure Lady (with ocelots) features a “lady of leisure” promenading ostentatiously with her three leashed wild cats. Nineteenth-century fashionability, exoticism and the taming or subordination of nature are themes embodied in this work. It is no coincidence that the patterning on the Dutch wax costume worn by Shonibare’s leisure lady features clocks–a symbol of time and its rich abundance.”
Shonibare’s work has been featured all over the world; typically he reproduces famous European paintings in 3-D displays, and he always clothes his figures using Dutch wax fabrics: “Using material such as Dutch wax-print fabric that has its own history of movement between continents, Shonibare addresses, in a decorative and seemingly lighthearted way, the shared history uniting Europe (and America) with Africa. At the same time, a more serious point is made, says the artist: “…the idea behind it is to draw a parallel with the relationship between the contemporary first-world and third-world countries. I want to show that behind excessive lifestyles there are people who have to provide the labor to make this kind of lifestyle happen.” (The Warhol)
I would add to Shonibare’s astute observation that certain patterns emphasize this fact: behind our comfortable, technology-saturated lifestyles in the West there are places, like DR Congo, that not only provide labor but the raw materials for these products. Patterns like the one on the left serve as a strong reminder that long-established veins of supply and demand continue to operate in ways that pump profits only one direction. They reinforce rather than repair economic gaps in places like DR Congo. In fact, some have called DR Congo’s mineral expoitation and its destabilizing force in Eastern DR Congo the “Playstation war.” While this name seriously oversimplifies the complex nature of relations in the Great Lakes region, it’s undeniable that our consumption of “hot commodities” like the Playstation affect how people do business in DR Congo, and that economic gaps feed the roots of unrest in that area. Much like the “6 bougies” fabric in its day, the playstation pattern reaches the DR Congo primarily as a status symbol. It’s reasonable to guess that, in DR Congo, a lot more people have worn the Playstation fabric above than actually own the game console–despite the fact that the most vital raw materials needed to produce its components are extracted from DR Congo.
Studying wax fabrics presents opportunities to explore moments in contemporary African cultures and the corresponding iconography that people choose to express their values, hopes and fears. Each fabric records a snapshot in the continually shifting landscapes of contemporary tastes and identity as well as the character of the global marketplace; culture is never static and, with short runs and fast turnovers in design, wax prints seem particularly tuned in to developments in African tastes, registering complex responses: concerns, affirmations, rejections, appropriations and expressions of exchange. Visit our flickr set to see more examples of wax fabrics and more of Shonibare’s work. Stay tuned as we will keep adding to this cache of photos and offer you more examinations into these swatches of African history.