Tracing identity and ownership through batik

In 2013, fabrics heavily influenced by West African batik-style finally took the world by storm. With the likes of Michelle Obama and Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles readily sporting such outfits, its popularity has been growing. This celebrity endorsement has helped to propel emerging and established designers even higher into the echelons of the fashion industry and the public's consciousness. See here.

The collective feeling among Afrocentrics is that finally African fabrics and designs that had seemingly only appealed to Africans, or those with some social or political connection to the continent, were finally gaining the global recognition they deserved, (see MisBeee Writes 24 September 2013 African Fabrics - Fashion or Fad). 

Anglor Wax made in Nigeria © MisBeee Writes
Purists among us may balk at the changes that have accompanied the globalisation of the fabric. It is no longer confined to the traditional kaba and slit style worn by middle-aged women across the vast continent. Instead, it has morphed to accommodate high street, western styles that are tighter fitting, and at times more intricate.

Kaba and slit
In Ghana, kaba refers to a top that is sewn to fit the upper part of a woman’s body. The slit refers to a tubular skirt fitted with a draw string that can be adjusted as the woman’s waist size changes. The skirt has a slit running up to the knee to enable wearers to walk unhindered. But if we knew the origins of the fabrics, would purists be so protective of the design changes?

The so-called kaba and slit design does not originate from Ghana. It is an import from Nigeria where kaba is defined as a one-piece dress that resembles the buba in shape, but is long enough to hit at the ankles. Other kaba styles incorporate pleats and tucks, but in Ghana it has come to embody the top half of a woman's outfit.

Old style
Prior to that, women in Ghana used to wear a plain top and would wrap a cloth round their waist - preferably two for security. I know this because my great grandmother who was born at the turn of the 20th century and her daughter after her - my grandmother - both dressed in this fashion.

Even though not a native of Ghana, kaba and slit has been embraced wholeheartedly to the point where even the word kaba, has been absorbed into the many cultures and languages of Ghana.

Many West Africans are well aware that the fabrics they wear are often referred to as Dutch wax print. But how may of us know that this is because the Dutch were the ones to popularise this mode of batik design, which originated in Indonesia?

Historical background
Indonesia was a Dutch colony between 1800 and 1950. Locals developed the batik style on to fabrics on the Indonesian island of Java. Batik is made by hand-drawing motifs on cotton cloth, and involves using wax and resistant dye. This caught the imagination of the Dutch colonisers who eventually started to mass produce the colourful cloth and export them to West African countries.

Hand-made printed cloths were not new to West Africa, however. Indigenous fabrics such as the Yoruba Adire in modern-day Nigeria were popular. However, the emergence of the cheaper Dutch alternatives had the effect of displacing the local versions. 

The Black Dutchman
There are conflicting views on how these mass-produced fabrics entered West Africa. One version is Dutch merchants travelling to Indonesia stopped off in a West African country and stumbled upon a new market.

Others say West African indentured soldiers employed by the Dutch in Indonesia took the batiks back to their home countries as gifts for families. These indentured soldiers, also known as Belanda Hitam or the Black Dutchmen were people with African and Indonesian ancestry living in Dutch Indonesia.

Whatever the reality, the mass-produced prints helped to spawn many of the brand names currently associated with African prints. These include English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais. There is also ATL, a subsidiary of Manchester-based ABC textiles, and Woodin, a subsidiary of Holland’s Vlisco. The Vlisco brand comes from the van Vlissingers merchant family of 1846 who mass-produced these textiles, originally for the European market.

Accepted truths
This issue of identity and authenticity is one raised by award-winning Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shobinare MBE who is well known for his use of batik fabrics in the quest to subvert accepted truths.

At the Greenwich exhibition in February 2014, the artist examined the life of Lord Horatio Nelson. Nelson was a British flag officer - famous for his service in the Royal Navy and his contributions during the Napoleonic Wars.

Although it is well documented that the admiral was killed on the battlefield, Shobinare's exhibition offers us an alternative historical narrative to the final minutes of Lord Nelson's life. Shobinare chooses to capture his dying minutes in a series of 'Fake Death' images. He is either pictured committing suicide - dressed in batik - or dying from old age.

Scandalous, some may say but Shobinare is playing with us. Shobinare's depictions are only there to encourage us to think critically outside societal norms. By transposing Lord Admiral's quintessentially British outfit to one made of batik fabric, Shonibare forces us to look outside of the historical truths we have come to accept and explore colonialism and the intricate ways it has shaped cultural identities.
As part of the exhibition Shobinare replaces some Caucasian figures in these paintings with African and Asian people. In doing so, he flags up the issue of multiculturalism and the part played by others that are often written out of history or their story only half told.

Uncomfortable Truths
For those of you familiar with Shobinare's  Uncomfortable Truths exhibition of 2007 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), you will be aware of his need to paint Black people back into historical settings. 

This V&A exhibition celebrated the bicentenary of the act to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Shobinare used this social and political juncture in British history to challenge our accepted truths about popular history. 

Paintings and installations showcasing the wealth and opulence of early 17th, 18th and 19th century Britain were re-worked to include the unseen members of British society that kept life ticking over - the slaves, maids, servants ....

In the same way, Shobinare's Greenwich exhibition takes the Indonesian-inspired batik, popularised by the Dutch, adopted and adapted by West African cultures, and fashions it into a copy of the suit worn by Britain's Lord Nelson on the day of his death. 

Fanny Nelson
Shonibare does not stop at just Lord Nelson's but uses batik to celebrate the life of his estranged wife Frances 'Fanny' Nelson. Fanny is recorded in history as a mild-mannered, moderate woman who seemingly stood back as her husband emotionally divorced her and took up with mistress Lady Emma Hamilton

Shobinare employs the batik print to tell us an alternative story, one in which Nelson's wife is a more vibrant individual. By displaying a brightly coloured dress made from batik but in 19th century style, Shobinare is also giving her a subtle nod to Fanny's West Indian beginnings in 1761's Nevis.

Who am I?
The exhibition got me thinking about my own identity and the reasons why I wear batik - or what I call Ghanaian fabrics. Am I trying to make a political or social statement to others about who I am? And is that statement diluted if I choose to wear fabrics in western, high street styles as opposed to more traditional designs?

Does or should it matter that these styles of fabric - although not uncommon in Ghana prior to Dutch exports arriving - have become a blend of Indonesian and Dutch influences?
If they are not purely indigenous, does that make them less Ghanaian or African? Or is there an argument to say that as nothing is from one source and cultural influences are increasingly pervasive, making the issue of identity becomes moot?

What do you think? I'd be interested to know.....
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

For more blogs like this check out:
African Fabrics: Fashion or Fad?

What's your favourite Adinkra symbol?
Adinkra - more than just a pretty face

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  1. I always thought about the Dutch Wax when I bought my Ankara print cloths at Peticoat Lane Market. I wanted to be proud of my African culture but it's actually dutch people who made the prints??! I put that thought to the back of my mind....I didn't really want to accept it. It's interesting to discover the Indonesian connection too :( Thank goodness for Kente. I met Shobinare at a play my friend took me to last year. Humble guy :-) Very well written as usual Ahofe! X

    1. Thanks fellow writer! I know what you mean - it's an interesting story of the fabric's journey from Indonesia to the West African countries and I think it's even more interesting trying to uncover what happened to our indigenous prints....were they pushed to one side in favour of these imports? or did we see a blend of both being worn? more to investigate.

      Regarding Shobinare - he seems like a really cool dude and I like what you say about him being humble. Ciao original


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