The history of (West) Africa’s most famous, loved and easily identifiable fabric – the Ankara – is a book written with half-truths, missing many scripts and authored by interlopers. Their version of the story begins once upon a time, in the Netherlands where ‘African prints’ (which Ankara is sometimes also called) was first manufactured. Conveniently left out of this story is that the prints were in fact, an imitation of Indonesian craftsmanship. Locals in Indonesia had long used the technique of wax-resist dyeing – that is applying wax to a cloth and dying over that wax to make a pattern- to make batik. Indonesia was one of the Dutch’s territorial spoils then. Soon, the batik-dyed textiles found their way to the Netherlands, and then Europe, en masse. Only this time, machines were producing them, trying to recreate what the Indonesians did by hand.
The textiles, however, did not find favour with Europeans. Conscripted West Africans who had done battle in Indonesia at the Dutch’s command were reportedly taken with them. The Dutch changed tactic. And so, Ankara became an African thing – today, a multi-million dollar industry. The world’s top manufacturer of the textile, Vlisco, had a turnover of almost £300 million in 2013.
Another missing puzzle from the story is that the textiles now produced for the West African market were based on traditional African symbols. Africa had the seeds. The Dutch had the water and means to harvest. Regardless of its much contested and debated origins, the Ankara has thrived. The fruits of this productivity, however, have been enjoyed mostly far away from the continent. This is bad news for local textile manufacturing industries.
For some time now (read as decades on end) Africa’s heritage and the chance to own it completely, and ultimately turn it for great profit, has been as likely as an eclipse. What is originally African is not appreciated or respected by the rest of the world. Rather, it is suffocated or exploited.
The Ankara is only one of a few examples. Clothes made locally were once the norm. They were handmade stories of ancestry, culture & history in rich forms, shapes, patterns, colours and symbolic messages; to mark identity, to communicate. The Ankara, while not produced by us, was based on these forms and shapes. The ukara-ekpe cloth, of South-East Nigeria origins, was a sophisticated script of century-old symbols called Nsibidi depicting lovers, hands in friendship, war and work, masks, moons, feathers and so on. There’s also the woven aso-oke of the Yorubas in South-West Nigeria, the woven Kente of the Ashantis and Ewe people of Ghana; the tie-dye adire of the Yorubas; the woven & dyed ukara-ekpe, the beaten Obom from Cameroon. The allure of these indigenous textiles supported local textile industries of a people content with their history. The production scale wasn’t large but more than anything else the industries were driven by a sense of identity, an awareness of a culture to be preserved.
Spoilers would eventually come in form of ‘western civilization’ – which meant English tailoring and the attendant conditioning that this was the quality to aspire to; that we no longer needed to look to our own homegrown creations to remind ourselves of who we are. Local fabrics almost completely lost their allure and were regarded as a distant relic (mostly by a new generation who were born into ties, suspenders, bell bottoms, A-line skirts, berets, and trouser suits). The local textile industry folded into itself. No doubt helped along the way by damaging economic policies by the (Nigerian) government.
“The fabrics are made in African styles so in that sense it is African. We (Africans) have a right to take anything from the world and appropriate it as we see fit. We are no longer – we never were anyway – cut off from the world.” – Yinka Shonibare
An unfurling is, however, afoot; heralded by an old culprit, a previously unlikely ally – Western civilization. This time around it comes not in the cloak of colonization but with open hands of ‘global partnership and development’.
Its name is the Ethical Fashion Initiative (ETI). The ETI is the flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization that seeks to connect local artisans from the developing world to the international value chain of fashion. In simpler terms, it invests in local textile industries that in turn produce luxury value-added ethical products for top global fashion designers. The ETI, in Africa, currently works in Kenya, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and in the relatively short time the ETI has existed (since 2005), textiles from these countries have found homes in collections of world-renowned designers such as Stella Jean, Stella McCartney and mammoth online retail chain Yoox which merged with Net-A-Porter. American singer and songwriter, Beyoncé was once spotted in one of the ETI x Stella Jean designs which was hand-woven by artisans in Burkina Faso. Followed religiously by millions and with the picture mushrooming across cyberspace, Beyoncé brought the world’s attention to the work of, originally African textile industry.
The demand for them now is a foregone conclusion.
“The world is looking towards Africa, the youngest continent in the world with the fastest growing demographic. I’ve realized many consumers are searching for something different, something more meaningful. Africa is one of the only places left in the world where “couture” still means something and many of young designers are successfully using this culture and know-how to create truly stunning collections,” Simone Cipriani, founder of ETI said.
But at what cost?
Yes, the artisans are ‘fairly remunerated’ but are they given due credit for their work? With the manipulation of the Ankara for example and the subsequent imbalance in its proceeds, one has to wonder. Also, and this is perhaps a sentimental question, are the artisans selling their heritage?
“We live in a multicultural, global world and artisanal skills cannot be kept alive forever unless they are attractive to consumers. If you are asking me if I think it’s wrong for a Chinese designer to use Maasai beadwork, I think not: it’s showing the beautiful and uniqueness of this skill,” Cipriani said flatly.
While the ETI exports African textiles across the continent to the world, in Nigeria, designers are doing just the same albeit with a difference. They are concerned with changing the Western-only taste of their people, giving power and employment to locals versed in the art of making these fabrics.
The most significant of this new class of designers are Amaka Osakwe of Maki Oh, Deola Sagoe of her eponymously named label, Deola, and Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orange Culture. They are nuanced in things of the past, employing age-old history as innovation and reintroducing it to a people who have forgotten. Amaka Osakwe, Creative Director of Maki Oh uses adire, aso-oke, akwa ocha and oja made by artisans in interior South-West Nigeria. Her designs from this not-so-little pocket of the world have found their way to and have been worn by the most fashion forward of Nigerian women, former First Lady of the U.S.A. Michelle Obama; fashion IT girl, artist and DJ, Solange Knowles and Oscar-winning actress, Lupita Nyong’o. Deola Sagoe, one of the pioneers of the post-millennium Nigerian fashion industry and Adebayo Oke-Lawal use aso-oke.
It is to Sagoe’s credit that the world woke up to indigenous African textiles after she won the MNET/AngloGold African Designs Award and was subsequently selected as one of four designers from the continent to show at New York Fashion Week, in 2000. Oke-Lawal re-defined what formal tailoring for men should be. For his suits, he uses a never-before-attempted combination of adire and aso-oke in startling patterns you can’t tear your eyes away from. He embeds his tunics with cowries, once traded and widely accepted currency. History was the price he chose to pay, for the future of African textiles and its industry.
Between these three, the demand to dress local is on the rise and this, in turn, is spawning jobs, showing an increasingly bright potential for the textile manufacturing industry.
The new history of African textiles sans Ankara is a book dyed, woven and waxed.
“The term ‘African print’, a misnomer was coined by its producers just to deceive the African buyers. The deception has continued up to the contemporary times.” – Tunde Akinwunmi
Read more on textiles from West Africa.
The “African Print” Hoax: Machine Produced Textiles Jeopardize African Print Authenticity by Tunde Akinwunmi, Department of Home Science University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria
Stories and Storytellers: The Naming of Textiles in West Africa, by William Kynan-Wilson
Africa’s Fabric is Dutch, by Robb Young, New York Times.