The Ankara, or Dutch Wax, or African Wax Print, is ubiquitous throughout the world's second-largest continent, and especially in West Africa. Yet, immediately upon reading the name, something appears to be amiss. If the fabric is indeed so deeply endemic to Africa, how is it that its name pays homage to the Dutch? A closer inspection of the origins of Ankara prints reveals a most fascinating tale of globalization and cultural syncretism.
The process of creating Ankara prints involves a technique known as wax-resist dyeing. The technique itself is ancient and was practised as far back as in ancient Egypt, at the very dawn of the iron age. It involves the use of an object, known as a "resist", to cover parts of the cloth being dyed to prevent them from being affected, thus "resisting" the dye, and ensuring that different colors dye different portions of the cloth. On the island of Java, in Indonesia, arose a particular form of wax-resist dyeing, known as batik. This was perhaps the ideal location for the development of the technique, since cotton, beeswax, and the plants required to create various dyes are found readily on the island. The batik artist would use a tool called a tjanting to etch dots and lines on the resist or print it with a copper cap, affixing it on the cloth before it is soaked in the dye. The applied resist prevents the entire cloth from being dyed and allows the artist to selectively dye the cloth according to her taste.
Ankara prints are by no means limited to clothing. Just check out this wallet.
The exact age of the batik tradition is impossible to identify since it predates writing in the area. Some scholars have posited that it was imported from South Asia, whereas others believe it was indigenously developed. Whatever the case, we know that by the 12th century AD, batik prints were widespread, and in 2009, UNESCO designated Indonesian batik as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Of course, at this point one may well wonder that this is well and good, but what might it possibly have to do with Africa?
These Ankara Sundresses are the very picture of elegance!
While batik was continuously maturing as a technique in Indonesia, the next major event in its story takes place seven hundred years later, with the arrival of the Dutch to the islands. The Dutch colonization of the islands introduced them to the prints, and by 1850, the colonists had begun to apply industrial processes to the production of batik prints, in a typically colonial attempt to take over the markets for batik. These machine made imitations, however, failed to impact local markets, since they would not capture many elements of traditional batik, such as the distinctive smell of the handmade process. Nonetheless, the invention was impressive. Jean Baptiste Theodore Prévinaire, a Dutch textile factory owner, modified a mechanical block printing machine to apply resin to both sides of the cloth, replacing the traditional wax, and recreate batik patterns, effecting the same look at a greatly reduced cost.
Bedazzle together with this African Ankara couples' suits.
But, with the failure of colonial efforts to undercut the local Indonesian industry came another twist in the tale. The belanda hitam were West African, primarily Ashanti and Akan, soldiers recruited into the Dutch colonial army to help subjugate Indonesia. Since they had no particular affinity to the local batik, the new, cheaper, industrially produced prints found considerable success among their ranks, and through them, these wax prints found their way to West Africa. In a surprisingly short period, the wax prints quickly became popular across West Africa, and then throughout much of the continent, sold by European, largely Dutch traders. So then are Ankara prints nothing more than a relic of colonialism, used to replace Africa's own rich traditions with factory-produced European goods? Not quite.
Men's African Wax Print long sleeve patchwork shirt.
For starters, since the 1960s, African firms have taken over much of the Ankara wax print market. CICAM in Cameroon, SOBETEX in Benin, SONITEXTILE in Niger, and BATEXCI in Mali all involve at least part African ownership. Although the Dutch Vlisco group still dominates much of the market, there has been a consistent trend of greater participation of Africans in the production of African apparel. But, economics aside, what of culture? Is it not a fraud upon the African consciousness to pass of an Indonesian creation as its own, when so many of Africa's own cultural traditions could be revived? The answer to that question is more nuanced. An interesting allegory that I found was that of the hamburger. It is one of the most enduring associations with America, immediately recalling the golden arches of that king of fast food corporations. Yet, the name still immediately gives away its origins in Hamburg, Germany. Globalization is a peculiar force, and is a lot older than we sometimes realize. Christianity is seen as the spiritual, social, and political foundation of Europe, yet most Britishers are actually worshipping a God conceived of in the Middle Eastern Levant. In India, a land of dazzling diversity not unlike Africa, the English language is one of the few unifying factors despite its utterly foreign origins.
These Ankara style drawstring backpacks are the ultimate travel companion!
There is however, a third reason that African Wax prints may truly be regarded as African. The batik tradition of visual communication through clothing has been ubiquitous among Africa's own textile traditions. Whether one talks of the Bogolan of Mali, the Kenté of Ghana, or the Faso Dan Fani of Burkina Faso, the Ndop of Cameroon, endemic African clothing has always involved dynamic coloring, and visual storytelling. Further, although resist dyeing has been traditionally practiced by Africans as well, in Nigeria and Senegal for instance, although they typically eschewed wax in favor of cassava starch, rice paste or mud as resists. Modern Ankara prints allow Africans the opportunity to create the kind of clothing they traditionally have created, or at least inspired from it, by the use of modern techniques that are more accessible and affordable. After all, there is no reason Ankara has to replace the Africa's own uniquely rich culture!