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Wax, a colonial fabric?

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Star of fashion shows, timeless wardrobes, trendy element in interior decoration, wax is everywhere. Present on the African continent for decades, wax, this cotton textile with colorful patterns, is an integral part of African society so that it is considered the emblem of the Black Continent. Yet contrary to popular belief, the history of wax does not begin in Africa.

Originally, wax was inspired by Indonesian batik, which is an artisanal technique for decorating fabrics based on wax reserves.

In the middle of the 19th century, the English and especially the Dutch copied fabrics produced in Java and renamed 'wax' (wax) They industrialised these fabrics and exported them to the Indonesian market.

As sales did not take off, Vlisco, a Dutch firm modernized the fabrics by drawing inspiration from African motifs and Javanese technique. Sensing the right opportunity, Vlisco put on the African market to sell its fabrics.

Imported for the first time in Ghana, the success is immediate. But, at first, wax is a luxury product that only a fringe of the population can afford. Then, it was popularized in the 1950s by Togolese resellers nicknamed 'nana benz'. The whole continent appropriates it and wax becomes a Pan-African symbol and an art of living of African culture.

A social and political tool

More than a simple fabric, wax is a real social mirror. Each pattern or tint conveys a message that varies from country to country.

In Ivory Coast, the fabric known as the “Gombo leaf” means that the woman who wears it has spared a lot to give it to herself. She is considered a wise person who acquires something through effort.

The wax “my husband is capable”, it symbolizes the affection and value that a husband brings to his wife. The man who offers it to his woman is capable, which means, he can provide for his household. It is also said that the woman who wears this loincloth will have many children.

Some patterns even act as real political weapons.

The “Gueï broom” fabric refers to the 1999 putch in Ivory Coast. “Sankara’s Tears” is a wax that was made shortly after the death of former Burkinabé president Thomas Sankara. Mandela’s footsteps were created at the time of the release of South African leader Nelson Mandela.

The power of wax

After almost 175 years of existence, Vlisco, the Dutch firm still dominates the wax industry as vigorously as ever. Each year, it produces about 64 million metres and sells 90% of it in Africa, generating a turnover of 300 million euros in 2014.

Even if, since the 1960s, several African countries (Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria) create their own factories and recently China, a newcomer to the wax market, Vlisco the formidable “father of wax” has no competition in terms of the quality and authenticity of the fabric.

When asked about the leadership of wax in the world of fashion, the Cameroonian stylist Imane Ayissi affirms that there is kente but also batik, Malian bogan, ewe or ashanti in Ghana, kita in Ivory Coast, Faso dan fani, ndop bamiléké in Cameroon… All these fabrics are disappearing because the creators are not doing their job. We know very little about them because everyone uses wax. I find that scandalous. If we were to say that the lace of Calais was of Cameroonian origin, I think it would be a bit annoying. It is a question of identity and recognition… Wax has never been African, it is a fabric that was imposed on us during colonization.”

The same goes for Nelly Wandji, a Cameroonian and African brand finder who launched Moonlook in 2014, a platform that accompanies, promotes and markets African creations around the world. She says, “It’s a shame that an import fabric gives so much shade to others who are truly African”.

Wax, a hybrid fabric

Wax is a fabric whose identity is multiple. Not quite African but not completely Indonesian, English or Dutch, the wax is distinguished by its hybridity.

In 2017, London stylist Stella McCartney was accused of cultural appropriation when she used wax fabrics for her fashion show at Fashion Week in Paris.

For art historian Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, “what makes this fabric absolutely fascinating is its hybridity, the fact that it defies any possibility of being assigned a fixed, pure identity. Much more than the concept of identity, (…) with wax, we find ourselves facing the same interlacing of multiple identification depending on where it is worn and the context in which it is staged.”

Finally, whether it is decried or appreciated, wax is a historical fabric that places itself at the meeting of cultures.

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