A tattered tapestry
Photo taken by Streamline 360 for the Wax Print Fest 2019. Guests interact with a technology-inspired printed fabric featuring QR codes, created by Ghanaian designer Chloe Assam. Courtesy of the author.
Right now, in Accra, there is a man wearing a dark grey suit jacket atop a white collared shirt, with a navy-blue tie, long grey pants, grey socks and closed-toe, hard bottom, black leather shoes. This man is sitting in a trotro – a local bus that does not have any air conditioning and is likely crammed to capacity with limited ventilation. I know. I have ridden next to him numerous times here in Accra.
He is hot.
He will be drenched in sweat as he enters his place of employment, a premier bank in the nation’s capital. He is the first in his family to receive a university degree, and, as a top science student, he has landed the dream job working in a finance institution that offers job security, access to interest-free loans and air conditioning for at least eight hours of the day. In this air-conditioned space, his attire makes sense. Wearing layers of fabric, being choked at the neck and donning hot, sweaty leather shoes is a worthwhile price to pay in order to occupy a space in such a prestigious institution.
This is the Ghanaian dream – a dream that has been explained to me in countless conversations I have had with young people in various parts of Ghana where I have done education policy work.
Somewhere else, in a Washington DC office, there is a Ghanaian American woman who is proudly wearing a colourful wax print headwrap. She is wearing a wax print skirt and a blazer. She is grateful that she can express herself boldly, in colours and patterns in her workplace. She is a millennial and proudly part of a generation that is actively fighting against respectability politics in the workplace. Why should her attire be limited to greys and blacks? Why can’t she wear her hair in a colourful headwrap? After all, this is America. Land of the free and home of the brave.
A melting pot.
Though she has only ever been to Ghana once and does not speak her mother tongue, she is proud to be Ghanaian. She is proud to hold on to the bits of her identity that she can actually control. Maybe she cannot change her Christian name. Maybe she cannot learn to speak Twi overnight. But she is still Ghanaian and these prints ensure everyone knows.
The man going to his job in Accra would be justified in wearing his attire in Washington DC. On a grey day in autumn, one might not find it odd that he was dressed this way. However, in a country where the temperatures rarely fall below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, where the skies reflect a myriad of colours depending on the time of day, and where the most respected attire worn by royalty is carefully knitted fabric draped across one shoulder like a Greek god, one might ask, why isn’t he wearing wax print? Why is my friend across the ocean holding so steadfastly onto this cloth that has been all but cast out of workplaces in our mother country?
He is likely not wearing the cloth because it is not allowed. In many professional workspaces, wax prints have been relegated to Friday casual wear. Why is that? Why is there such a distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘professional’ here in Africa, while somewhere else, people are fighting to bridge that gap? The reason, in both cases, is certainly tied to respectability politics, wrought by colonialism. The African, seeking to communicate intelligence, sophistication and professionalism seeks to create a distinction between home wear and office wear. According to Victoria Rovine, ‘the construction of non-European identities as traditional was one element of [the] colonial enterprise’. It follows that ‘traditional-wear Fridays’ – the day workers are allowed to wear colourful, light, seemingly casual clothing – is an expression of colonial rule in postcolonial society. The idea that what is local should be relegated to a special day and be seen as ‘casual’ and not ‘professional’ is a reflection of the value judgments imposed by European colonisers on local goods, people and ways of life. And while colonial structures still linger in professional spaces, they are being challenged in the proverbial town square. African youth are pushing back against the notion of wax print as emblematic of African ingenuity, especially because wax print was not created by Africans.
There is a youth-driven African renaissance happening that permeates popular culture. A 2020 youth survey found that 76% of young people in Africa believe this century will be the African Century. This point is buttressed by increased tourism to African nations and reports of increased sales of African textiles in America following the release of the Black Panther film. Yet while African textiles are being mainstreamed across the diaspora, they have been relegated to weekends with traditional Fridays, Saturday funerals and weddings, and Sundays for church. Furthermore, this resurgence has caused many Africans to consider whether wax print is really African.
Wax prints, otherwise known as African prints, are actually a Dutch import. The Dutch sought to mechanise the wax printing technique of the Javanese people of Indonesia to make it faster and easier to produce these printed textiles for the South Asian market. The Javanese rejected this innovation and the Dutch soon found a new market in West Africa. Since that time, wax prints have become an iconic part of African and Afrodiasporan cultural practice. Wax print fabrics have stood the test of time and have become an important part of African ‘traditions’ as they emerge during important community moments like births, unions, spiritual ceremonies and deaths. And yet, a new generation of African designers and creatives are questioning the relevance of these prints in today's expression of African identity. They are asking whether these names, colours, and patterns still matter to and for them.
Well, because African designers no longer want to be held by the standard of using only one type of material. If an African designer wants to traffic in French silks, does that make the designs any less African? For many, the answer is no. Yet, the diasporan, seeking to connect with their motherland and hoping to reflect parts of their identity that can be hidden behind English names and Western accents, hopes that designers will continue to create and export more of these wax print designs for them to wear, announcing their heritage in workplaces and at festivals and weddings, and wherever culture is displayed.
This dichotomy is a perfect illustration of the tension between home and away; the ways in which diasporans hold on to that which is old, while those in the homeland are at once rebelling and conforming.
Amma is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants living in the United States of America and is proud to have returned to Ghana to live. She has over a decade of development and social policy experience in some of the most culturally rich parts of the US, Europe and Africa. Following her studies at Cornell, Columbia and the London School of Economics, Amma has gone from working in public schools in South Louisiana to developing education policy in Ghana to enhancing innovation and partnerships across West Africa. Amma considers herself an intrapreneur turned entrepreneur, as the Founding Curator of The Afropole, a brokerage seeking to connect African and Afrodiasporan businesses for greater visibility in global markets. Amma is always looking for innovative ways to disrupt the status quo. Her ideas have been featured in the BBC, NBC, Vlisco &Co, to name a few. When she is not busy on a mission to #buildblackglobally, you can find her on Instagram doing a praise dance.