The Fabric War: The dominance of Wax in the African textile market

The variety of Wax [1].

We all wear clothes not only to dress ourselves, but to express our style and identity to the public. Just as cotton, denim or polyester are used as materials for clothing, Wax has also become a well-known ‘African’ material. In this article, the origin of wax and its application are examined. The assumption that Wax encompasses the entire range of African materials and also originated on the continent is widespread. But the origin of Wax does not solely lie on the African continent. Before Wax first appeared in Ghana in 1893, it was mainly the joint history between Europe, West Africa and Asia that made the material tangible. It was primarily Indonesian batik, that is considered the predecessor of present-day Wax. However, this connection and the inspiration which came from the Indonesian ‘sarong’ is largely forgotten these days.

The original story of Wax.

It is an ordinary day in the life of a community of Javanese people. Together they sit in a room to work on the design of a ‘sarong’ (the Indonesian word for batik). They have been using a unique technique since the 11th century to produce high quality designs and process the material.

Picture 2: Javanese women applying dye by hand to a fabric [2]

Picture 3: Applying the Wax reserve technique [2]

This technique (called ‘Wax reserve technique’ [2]) caught the attention of the Dutch and English colonists during their conquest of Indonesian lands between 1810-1872 [3, 4]. The Dutch were the first to industrialise this artisanal technique, followed by the English. The aim was to achieve mass production in a short period of time, but at a lower cost and accessible to all Indonesians [3]. In fact, the making of a sarong took quite a long time and it was only meant for the upper or middle classes and often intended for the Javanese royal family. Convinced of the success of the industrial batik trade in Indonesia, the Dutch established their first factory in 1846 to produce a copy of the batik fabric which was soon known as Wax. The production was initiated by the van Vlissingen & Co company (now Vlisco), based in the Netherlands [4]. However, the Indonesians considered it to be imperfect, due to its poor quality. The link to Javanese batik was soon a connection that was no longer significant. This negligibility led to the decision of the Dutch to turn to West Africa, especially Ghana, where batik already existed. The Ghanaian riflemen, who fought alongside the Dutch in Indonesia, were fascinated by the quality of the designs and the bright, shimmering colours. Hence, they returned home with their bags full of batik fabrics [5]. The Dutch noticed this fascination for batik in Ghana and realised that they could easily use it as trading material – this was the birth of a colonial commodity in Africa.

Wax, from Dutch ‘innovation’ to African application.

It was in the early 1900s when the Dutch started to export their Wax to Ghana in large numbers [5]. Wax cloth then spread to West, and later to Central Africa, due to missionary settlers in their efforts to circulate their understanding of civilisation. At the same time, they advocated the wearing of Wax cloth, especially by women, in order to cover their bodies [6]. Wax would ultimately become one of the main products of West African trade. Towards the end of the 1920s, European companies began to become better informed about the changing tastes of West Africans in Wax cloth, which helped them to control the local market [7]. They tried beyond all expectations to respect the tastes, codes, habits, and customs, including religion, of each region by adapting their supply to the demand. Because of that they realised that certain groups of people, Muslims for example, did not like designs displaying body parts. Instead, they preferred geometric or more abstract designs (e.g., Bogolan fabric from Mali) [5, 6].

After all we see: Wax experienced a huge success in West Africa, after its rejection in Indonesia. Why else became Wax so popular? It owes its popularisation to its well-structured trade, accompanied by a sales strategy adopted and perpetuated by the renowned Wax dealers nicknamed Nana-Benz (woman who owns a Benz car), who dominated the main market of Lomé in Togo from the 1950s onwards with their Wax businesses [4, 8].

Picture 4: Some Nana-Benz stand proudly beside their Mercedes Benz car, which they were able to purchase due to their big success. Their success story is at the same time manifested in their name – ‘Nana-Benz’ – that was given to them by the Togolese people [9].

The Nana-Benz made Lomé the hub of Wax trade, where customers from all over the sub-region came to buy this special fabric [8]. The businesswomen assigned names and slogans inspired by its motifs (designs), according to the socio-political, economic, and cultural context, to better market it. Now the Wax which was distributed by the above-mentioned businesswomen gained full momentum and traditional fabrics such as Adinkra, Kente, Bogolan, Ndop Royal Korhogo or Kita, Rabal, Raphia or Faso Dan Fani lost their acceptance. Even though traditional fabrics were used for many years (primarily during certain life events such as weddings, anniversaries etc.), they were no longer a first-choice purchase and slowly vanished from the market [6, 10].

At the dawn of independence, several African countries began to produce Wax themselves. This is the case in Ghana, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, or Togo, for example [11]. Many factories have since been closed and others were bought out. However, local factories such as the Ghana Textiles Printing Company Ltd (GTP) in Ghana (established in 1966) and Uniwax in Côte d’Ivoire (established in 1968) which were sponsored by the Dutch company Vlisco, have since established themselves in the sub-region as major players in the textile sector to produce Wax in Africa [6].

Moreover, since 1990, China has also started to produce Wax. It is a cheap and poor-quality copy of the Vlisco brand for African markets. Its production represents 90% of the Wax fabric market, which reinforces the omnipresence of Wax in the African textile market and puts other African fabrics in the background [4].

In conclusion: While the African traditional fabric was originally made by and for Africans, the rise of, Dutch, Chinese or African Wax changed the patterns of wear. Consequently, the traditional fabric was suppressed and Wax on the rise, which ultimately lead to dominance in the African textile market.

Wax, more than a fabric.

Picture 5: La Famille (The family) [12]
Every Wax tells a story. This fabric is a representation of the family unit where the mother
(the hen) holds a central position in the home, surrounded by her children (chicks), while only
the head of the father (rooster) is visible. It is a tribute to the central place of mothers (but also
women in a wider sense) in the construction and running of the home. It also represents the
West African matriarchal societies. Furthermore, it celebrates the very strong African female
entrepreneurship (such as the Nana-Benz). This kind of pattern is occasionally a wedding
present in some West Africans countries. The future husband offers this Wax to his future
wife as a symbol of respect for her position in their future family. Additionally, mothers share
the story behind the design with their daughters to emphasize a woman’s importance and role
for the well-being of her family [12].

Wax is nowadays more popular than ever. It has conquered all areas of life: religion, politics, daily life, family relations, to such an extent that it has become a means of communication, which allows individuals to express their identity or social affiliation [13]. Wearing Wax is the outward sign of elegance, prestige, wealth, and even personal identity.

On the political level, the wearing of the Wax, which is manufactured in the effigy of a head of state during election campaigns, means, in a certain way, the expression of his or her support for the candidate or politician in question. Otherwise, it is also the expression of one’s own political identity. Wax printed with effigies or slogans do not usually have a special name, but these Wax fabrics are automatically identified through their designs. They also represent propaganda, patriotism, commemoration, emblems of great causes or political mobilisation [4].

Furthermore, on the socio-cultural level, Wax combines themes ofdaily life or family relations such as rivalry and competition between co-wives. We see in this case wearing Wax is a statement. Sometimes obvious, sometimes reserved. One might wear trousers and a blouse or shirt to work but choose a more ‘African’ outfit on Sundays when they go to church or to a traditional ceremony. For example, every church and its groups have their own designs, hence, wearing a certain Wax, shows identification with one’s church [14]. A certain design starts to become very visible when it is always used for the same event during a longer period. There are, for example, designs in Ghana that are used specifically for funerals and whenever a funeral takes place, the same Wax is worn [14]. One can also find a whole variety of accessories – be it handbags, earrings, bow or neck ties, as well as pillows, blankets or sportswears. While we can find Wax with names, that are linked to certain (hi)stories, wearing Wax also makes it a timeless heritage or a joint inheritance [15].

To sum up, Wax has ended up becoming a symbol of African cultural identity and a true memory of past and current events [13]. It is transmitted from generation to generation in African societies as we see in the example above. However, with the world how it is today, connected, cosmopolitan and international, Wax does not only appeal to African societies, but moves beyond the continent and its borders. Wax is now not solely a product from Africans for Africans. In contrary, as much as its origin lies in South-East-Asia, its circulation and application migrated to the whole world.

References

[1] Blog I love my Africa (2020): Le tissu Wax. Published on 7 December 2020. Available on https://ilovemyafrica.com/blogs/blog-sur-la-culture-africaine/origine-du-tissu-wax. Retrieved on 04.02.2021.

[2] Garuda Indonesia (2020): Les secrets du batik, trésor du patrimoine indonésien ! Available on https://garudaholiday.fr/blog-voyage-indonesie/les-secrets-du-batik-tresor-du-patrimoine-indonesien. Retrieved on 04.02.2021.

[3] Zinsou, S. D. (2019): D’où vient le Wax? In: Fondation Zinsou, (ed.) Wax stories. Available on: http://fondationzinsou.org/portfolio_page/wax-stories-histoire-de-pagnes/. Retrieved on 04.02.2021, p. 4-5.

[4] Sylvanus, N. (2016): Patterns in circulation: cloth, gender, and materiality in West Africa. The University of Chicago press. Chicago and London.

[5] Sylvanus, N. (2007): The fabric of Africanity: Tracing the global threads of authenticity. Anthropological Theory, 7 (2), p. 201-216.

[6] Grosfilley, A. (2006): Textiles d’Afrique : Entre tradition et modernité. Édition Point de vues. Bonseours.

[7] Speekenbrink, K. (1999): Le wax, témoin d’échange entre continent, in Autour du wax, textiles de Cote d’Ivoire. Catalogue d’exposition, Ministère de la culture. Abidjan, p. 8-10.

[8] Toulabor, C. (2012): Les Nana Benz de Lomé : Mutations d’une bourgeoisie compradore, entre heur et décadence. Afrique contemporaine, 244 (4), p. 69-80.

[9] Togo Archives (2019): The history of the Nana Benz of Togo. Published in June 2019. Available on https://www.republicoftogoarchives.com/the-nana-benz-of-togo/. Retrieved on 04.02.2021.

[10] Ngane M.S. (2019): Pour une réappropriation des textiles africains. Available on https://mag.moon-look.com/heritage/savoir-faire-ancestraux/pour-une-reappropriation-des-textiles-africains/ Retrieved on 04.02.2021.

[11] Toé, F. T. (2016) : Textiles et vêtements du Golfe du Guinée : enjeux de conservation et de médiation. Riveneuve éditions, Paris.

[12] Fondation Zinsou (2019): Wax stories. Available on: https://drive.google.com/file/d/15-r12vytTHR_6laiTAQFlRmfRi16JjXS/view. Retrieved on 04.02.2021.

[13] Kembo, D. M. (2015): Le pagne africaine et sa symbolique : Femme et féminité de la culture africaine. L’Harmattan, Paris.

[14] Spring, C. (2012): Africain Textiles Today. Smithsonian Books. Washington, D.C.

[15] Delhaye, C. & Woets, R. (2015): The commodification of ethnicity: Vlisco fabrics and wax cloth fashion in Ghana. International Journal of Fashion Studies 2 (1), 77-97.

About the Author

My name is Yao Sodjadan, and I am a master’s student at the University of Bayreuth studying African Culture and Society. My main areas of study include development politics as well as African history. In this context, I have been intensively studying the history of wax in Africa and wrote a term paper for the seminar “History of Consumption in Postcolonial Africa (from the 1960s to 1990s)” which was organized by Robin Frisch.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search