Thursday, 5 November 2015

Batik and Wax Fabric: From Indonesia to Africa, via Holland

I thought there was something a bit familiar about those African fabrics

(Photo from The Wax Sellers of Wentworh Street by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life)

Some time ago while wandering around the streets around Wentworth Street, off Brick Lane, where there are numerous shops selling African fabrics, I was struck by how a lot of them reminded me of Indonesian and Malaysian batik. Looking a little more closely I saw labels which said things like "genuine Holland wax". So I did some research, and guess what? It turns out that there is in fact an Indonesian connection, via Holland.

Batik is a technique of wax-resist fabric dyeing which has been practised in Indonesia and maritime South East Asia for centuries, most notably on the Island of Java. The process involves applying a design to cloth with wax, and then dyeing the fabric. The parts of the cloth not covered by wax take up the dye, while the parts covered by wax do not. The wax is then removed from the fabric, and the process can be repeated as often as desired to build up the design. As you can imagine, this is a slow, painstaking and highly skilled technique, and Indonesian batik is on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This video shows the process:

Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 1949, and the Dutch exported batik to West Africa from the mid 19th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, machinery was invented which could replicate the wax resist process more swiftly, and this gave rise to the African wax fabric prints as we know them today.

The machine-produced batik was not popular in Indonesia, but was popular in Africa. One theory is that West African troops serving with the Dutch forces in Indonesia brought batik back home to Africa, where it was well received. The early fabrics were imitations of Indonesian batik, but the manufacturers later began producing prints aimed specifically at the African market. To this day, although there are now producers in Africa,  and—of course—China, the high end of the market remains dominated by Dutch companies like Vlisco, whose entire output is for the African market. 

Although these fabrics are quintessentially African, they are designed and manufactured abroad. This raises some interesting issues, as you might expect. Critics of the industry have suggested that it represents a continuation of colonial endeavour, and argue that Africans should wear clothing designed and made closer to home. This whiff of colonialism is perhaps the reason the artist Yinka Shonibare includes wax fabrics in his work, as in this example :

Africans may buy their fabrics from Europe today, but there was a time in the past when Europeans had to journey abroad to buy the luxury goods which they were unable to produce themselves, such as Chinese silk during the time of the Roman Empire,  chintz and other luxury fabrics from India from the 17th century (currently the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum), or porcelain from China, which was not produced in Europe until 1708 (at Meissen). I don't know much about the  textile industry or Africa, but my optimistic view is that it's only a matter of time before fabrics are produced and designed in Africa, by African companies, which will compete with the products from abroad.

I never get tired of wandering around the Wentworth Street area and marvelling at the multitude of wax designs. Some are quite similar to traditional Indonesian batik, but from the early days, many of the fabrics incorporated motifs and images from modern life. They often have stories or symbolic meanings associated with them. This famous Vlisco design from 1940 is called "Six Bougies". The bougies are spark plugs, meant to show that the wearer is wealthy and owns a six-cylinder car, but there is another meaning: that he woman in the centre of the design is strong enough to take on six men. 

Motifs found on more recent fabrics include laptops and mobile phones. Others—like the one entitled Michelle Obama’s Handbag, or Kofi Annan's Brain—pay glorious homage to contemporary events. 

Kofi Annan's Brain

They’re mathematically interesting, too: within the frame of a single shop window you can see anything from regularly repeating motifs to some whose placement seems quite chaotic. There’s never been an occasion where a second, closer, look at these fabrics has gone unrewarded.

I've been wondering for some time if these African batiks would work on traditional South East Asian clothing, like the sarong kebaya.

"Kebaya 1" by Jamieson Teo from Singapore, Singapore - _MG_8051. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

After all, the batik shirts commonly worn in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, like the ones seen here, worn by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and politician Prabowo Subianto:

...have quite a lot in common with the sort of garment favoured by the late Nelson Mandela.

And perhaps nowadays there might be a market for Southeast Asian batik in Africa.

A small correction:
It turns out that Mandela's shirts were made from Indonesian batik, and batik shirts are known in South Africa as a 'Madiba shirts"

Further reading:

Made in Holland: the Chanel of Africa by Inge Oosterhof., 2015

When It Comes to African Wax Prints, Buying Local, Thinking Global Isn’t As Easy As You Think African Urbanism, 2012

Africa's Fabric Is Dutch Robb Young, The New York Times, 2012

African Lace: an industrial fabric connecting Austria and Nigeria Barbara Plankensteiner. Anthrovision, 2013

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth Street, by the Gentle Author

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