Photo credit: Wipo
A fabric that has conquered a continent through colonization, a continent that has made it one of its cultural marks, a cultural trait that today evokes this continent in the four corners of the globe! An ambiguous story: wax and Africa.
Like many things that "were discovered by Europeans" the Wax, under another name, existed long before natives of the "United Provinces", "Holland" today, discovered it.
Between 1663 and 1674 the Dutch set out to conquer Makassar and Java, today parts of Indonesia. A region where the inhabitants print their fabrics using the technique of "thrift". A technique that consists of hiding certain parts of the fabric so that the dye does not take these places and then obtain a pattern. In Indonesia, and especially in Java, to “spare” places without dyeing, the inhabitants use wax and call their technique “Batik”. It was during this colonization that the Dutch discovered this way of printing fabrics.
At the end of the XNUMXth century, the English and the Dutch took over the wax saving technique on their own and set up production units in England and the Netherlands with the intention of selling them on the Indonesian market at better prices than local production. But now, the Indonesians believe that this foreign production is of lower quality than theirs, shun it and suddenly British and Dutch sales do not follow.
At the same time the Dutch fail to conquer the island of Sumatra. A formidable resistance is opposed to them by the sultanate of Aceh throughout a war which will last more than thirty years, from 1873 to 1904. The Dutch miss manpower to take the top, this more especially as Belgium has just terminated with the United Provinces. To remedy this lack of men they decided to recruit mercenaries in Africa in their possessions of the Gold Coast, the current Ghana. These soldiers are sent to Sumatra to reinforce the Dutch troops.
Aceh fell in 1904 after a war that left 10.000 dead on the Dutch side and more than 100.000 dead on the Acehnese side. The surviving African mercenaries return home to the Gold Coast. But they don't come home empty-handed. As good Ashantis, they appreciated the Indonesian “Batik” and betting that their co-religionists will like them just as much, they have converted part of their pay into “Batiks” which they carry in their suitcases with the intention of selling them. Once back in Gold Coast the craze for “Batik” is even stronger than they expected. The well-to-do population tears them away.
This does not go unnoticed by the Dutch, whose production has not found a buyer with the Indonesians. They have unsold stock which they rush to send to the Gold Coast where they are selling wonderfully. The “Wax” was born. A wax-printed fabric using an Indonesian technique, made in the Netherlands and to a lesser extent in Great Britain, sold in West Africa.
Until the 1950s Wax remained a luxury product. It was at this time that the "Mamas Benz" were born, mainly in Togo, they were the ones who popularized Wax and made it a fashion icon in Africa. In the 1960s, at the dawn of independence, several African countries began to produce “Wax” themselves. This is the case in Ghana, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire. It becomes a pan-African fabric to the point that in the world "Wax" is associated with "Africa".
So here is the story of "Wax" in a nutshell, a fabric with a fascinating history with many twists and turns, a story that is far from over as one would expect from such a hybrid at the time. multiple identity that makes its life against all odds and emerges where it was not expected. And it is precisely this multiple identity that today wax is at the heart of a controversy with political ramifications.
For a few years, houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Louis-Vuiton, Agnès.B, Balmain, Stella Jean, Dries Van Noten have used Wax in their collections. But it was at Paris Fashion Week in 2017 when Stella McCartney, the daughter of Paul, a recognized stylist-creator and owner of a multinational fashion company, used Wax fabrics for her fashion show that the controversy broke out. She is accused of cultural appropriation. But the Wax, having more than one trick up its sleeve, makes others like Imane Ayissi say " Stop the Wax. Africa has better to show, Africa deserves better! ". Still, today from Accra to London, from Abidjan to Paris, from Lomé to New York, Wax is sold and bought.
On the one hand we therefore have Afro-Descendants who have appropriated Wax to such an extent that a non-African descendant fashion producer using Wax is accused of "cultural appropriation" and on the other hand we have Afro-Descendants who do not recognize themselves in the Wax to the point of saying that " Africa has better to show and that Africa deserves better than being associated with the Wax. Could we expect less from the Wax, he who " defies the possibility of being assigned a fixed identity. Political, ethnic, artistic, and always reinvented, the Wax has many faces and has not finished surprising us. as historian Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, Professor at the Free University of Brussels, writes.
For my part I do not disdain the Wax, far from it, but there are two things that I keep in mind and which dictate my behavior: On the one hand the Wax is indeed the product of colonization and still today the African production covers only 10% of its needs. The other repercussion of the craze for 90% imported wax is that it marginalizes all other truly African fabrics, going so far as to eliminate them.
For me, born on the continent, who had the chance to walk the land of my ancestors, a land of mountains and rivers, of sun and freshness, a land which gave me the chance to see, to touch and to adorn myself with the beauty of “Ndop” and “Toghu” to witness the disappearance of these fabrics would kill a part of myself. And this is where today I am so happy to see that an artist like Imane Ayissi, a great fashion designer, an African, appropriates such materials.
Thanks to his vision and his understanding of history, by imposing himself at the international level, he means that once again Africa, as it has done and has done for millennia, enriches the world. I sincerely hope that he will make all our sisters and brothers understand that dressing in the beauty and diversity of the real fabrics of the continent, from "Kente" to "Oborn", is more than a back to basics is a liberation and the epitome of modernity. The best way to appropriate an image that can only bring us harmony and respect and connect us to the strength of the ancestors.
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