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Meandering wax: A short history of the ‘African’ fabric

LENA HARTZ  |  14 AUGUST 2021  |  ISSUE #16
Lena Hartz.jpg

A selection of ‘Togolese’ prints. Picture by the author.

‘African’ fabric, also called wax, has a complicated history. A history that started in what is now Indonesia and the Netherlands, to become a big part of West African identity, and now plays an increasing role for the West and China. 


As researcher Anne Grosfilley explains, when the Netherlands ceded Flanders to Belgium, they also lost an important textile region. They therefore looked for a way to revive their textile industry in order to be competitive vis-à-vis the growing cotton industry. They found their inspiration in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. The Dutch tried to copy their traditional batik method, industrialise it, and sell cheaper versions back to the colony. However, the Indonesians were not impressed by the Dutch copies and preferred to buy the pieces traditionally handmade with a method that is now inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


The Dutch found a market for their copies of Indonesian designs in West Africa. A lot of men from the region, primarily from Ghana, had been drafted to fight in Java and had brought back sarongs, so a taste for the Indonesian fabric already existed. From the late 19th century, West Africa became the centre of a flourishing wax business. Ghana was the first port of interest for the Dutch imitations but the capital of its tiny neighbour, Togo, quickly became the commercial hub for the sale of wax and soon attracted buyers from the whole region.


Wax has become a part of West Africa’s cultural landscape. Men and women wear the fabric in more or less traditional designs. The different patterns and the quality of the fabrics are loaded with meaning, such as one’s social or marital status. Interestingly, while wax is now seen as typically West African, many West Africans consider wearing wax to be a sign of cosmopolitanism.

Until today, in Dakar, people still prefer to buy wax that ‘comes from’ Lomé (but is produced in China). The top wax traders in Lomé called ‘Nana Benz’ have now been replaced by the ‘Nanettes’, women who are travelling to Hong Kong, China, Thailand, and other Asian countries to import not only cloth, so-called ‘imi-wax’, but also shoes, handbags and jewellery. An increasing amount of the fabric comes as copies of copies from China. Often these are the only items that most people can afford.


In France, first-generation immigrants are less likely to wear wax as they are trying to fit in, and only wear it on special occasions such as going to church on Sundays or on the prayer day for Muslims, Friday. However, for the descendants of West African immigrants, wax is a link to their imagined homeland. As wax becomes mainstreamed in fashion, a lot more people of African descent feel at ease wearing it in Western contexts. Wax is the fabric that most people in the diaspora wear, as abroad, it does not represent social hierarchy and you can wear it on any occasion, unlike kente, for instance.


Not only the diaspora brings wax designs to Europe. In Senegal, the Toubabs (or ‘white people’) are big fans of the bright colours and patterns that wax offers. They buy not only clothes but also shoes, accessories, jewellery, handbags, bookmarks, notebooks, toys, and other items, all in wax. An increasing number of Western designers use wax as well. In Europe, for instance, these ‘African prints’ have become part of ‘ethnic-chic’ collections.


Some are worried that wax, which they see as imported, will push out more traditional handmade fabrics such as kente, Malian bogolan or Mauritanian indigo. Yet, some designers who also cater to the Toubab market have started using the more traditional West African fabrics for their designs. For instance, Rama Diaw’s last collection uses Mauritanian indigo and many interior designers like to use traditionally weaved fabric.


The continuous migration of wax designs has layered the fabric with meaning and symbolism over the last 150 years. It goes to show how intricately the colonial legacy links people. Trade and globalisation continue to connect us, as the ongoing journey of the ‘African’ fabric proves.


Lena Hartz

Lena grew up in Luxembourg. She completed an MA in International Relations and Literature in a World Context at the University of Aberdeen and spent a year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. During her MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, her research focused on EU development and migration politics in West Africa and its colonial legacies. She currently works for Luxembourg’s development cooperation agency in Senegal, and is completing an MSc in Global Ethics and Justice. In her free time, Lena loves to travel, read and volunteer with her local scout group. Lena is an editor at Routed Magazine.

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