With consumers becoming increasingly aware of the destructive nature of cultural appropriation, examples of it are getting noticed more and more. In the last few years several fashion companies have been publicly called out for cultural appropriation when they’ve used the types of colourful printed fabrics that are popular in West Africa. These prints are often known by their Nigerian name Ankara, or they are called Dutch wax prints or they are vaguely referred to as “African prints”. Characterized by bright repetitive patterns on thick cotton fabric, and are worn throughout Africa, they are especially common in Nigeria, Ghana, and other parts of West Africa. Casual clothes are made using Ankara print fabrics but they are frequently used for formal wear and many Ankara garments are custom made for the individual. For important events family groups will often choose one print and have formal attire for the entire family tailored in that fabric. Wearing Ankara prints is also popular among members of the West African diaspora and the vibrant fabrics are a common sight in international cities all over the world.
The colours used in Ankara are vivid, often in unexpected or unusual combinations and the patterns are eye catching. In short, Ankara fabric is beautiful and distinctive, qualities that are paramount in fashion. So it’s easy to see why when designers “discover” this type of fabric they gravitate towards it. Of course when we talk about fashion and clothes we’re not just talking about fabric. The clothes made from Ankara in West Africa are often crafted in styles that are designed locally, and popularized in those regions. And when designers like Stella McCartney or Gwen Stefani use these printed fabrics in their clothes, they frequently also use silhouettes and shapes that were originally created and popularized by local designers in West Africa. This can add to the feeling that fashion companies who sell these clothes are trying to profit by appropriating someone else’s culture. But the fabric is the main focus in these instances because it is so recognizable, and also because the link between Ankara and West Africa is so clear and strong for many people. But the true history and current state of this fabric, and the cultures it touches, is as complex and interesting as the fabric itself.
When wax is applied to a piece of cloth and then the cloth is dyed, the area under the wax will be protected from the dye. This is the process of batik. It sounds simple but it’s a complicated art form that involves placing the wax with precision, using multiple dyes and wax applications to get a variety of colours, and doing things like cracking the wax to achieve certain effects. This has been done for centuries, but not in Africa; batik actually originates in Indonesia.
Starting in the 1500s the Dutch came to what is now Indonesia looking for cheap spices and trade routes. They found both and over the next several hundred years the Dutch East India Company expanded Dutch occupation of the previously sovereign states that made up the archipelago. During much of the same time period the Dutch West India Company was heavily involved in the slave trade in West Africa. Some of the slaves that the Dutch took from West Africa, along with some paid West African fighters were sent to parts of Indonesia to fight for the Dutch against locals resisting the Dutch occupation. Some of the Africans that made it home brought the colourful batik fabrics from Indonesia back with them, and provided the initial introduction of the style into West Africa.
In the mid 1800s Dutch fabric company Vlisco leveraged new technologies and was able to begin to mass-produce batik fabrics in factories using resin instead of wax to try and replicate the intricate designs and bright colours that Indonesian batik artists created by hand. Vlisco and other companies hoped to sell the cloth in Indonesia but the imported machine made versions did not gain popularity there and the Dutch merchants shipped them to other parts of the world still under Dutch control. The styles found a receptive audience in West Africa and spread from there to other parts of the continent.
The colourful fabric quickly became so popular in West Africa that the companies manufacturing it began tailoring the styles to West African tastes. Ankara cloth still features some motifs reminiscent of the original Indonesian batiks. But now the fabric is made in patterns and colours that appeal to West African styles, and often using symbols, words, and even pictures of famous people that will resonate with customers in these markets. Many of the patterns are also given particular names by West African buyers and these names can be a way for the wearer to convey meaning and subtly communicate through fabric choice.
Just as fashions change, cultures too are not static. Even though batik did not originate in West Africa, Ankara has become an important part of modern West African culture. And the cultural and commercial journey of these prints is continuing to change. Much of the Ankara sold in West Africa is still made in the Netherlands. Some of the Dutch companies that make it are owned by British businesses. And two of the biggest producers of Ankara in Ghana are actually owned by Dutch companies. Another company in Ghana that makes the fabric is owned by an Australian and makes clothes in Ankara fabric, which are exported and sold in Sydney.
Currently some of the printed cloth sold in West Africa, some even in patterns developed by Dutch companies, is actually being produced in China and elsewhere in Asia, including Indonesia. Interestingly, because the actual cloth being used for the prints coming out of Asia tends to be thinner, and because the dyes sometimes don’t stay as vibrant for as long, many buyers will look for the Dutch made versions of Ankara to ensure they’re getting a quality products. It’s also worth noting that the original inventors of batik in Indonesia obviously didn’t forget how to do it and still manufacture traditional and modern Indonesian batik fabrics, and people in other parts of the world have learned the process and make dyed fabric using wax in other styles.
Understanding how Ankara has come to be over the last several hundred years can inspire greater appreciation of the beautiful fabric itself and of the living nature of culture. Like the colours and the patterns, the identity of the fabric is varied; it is not just Indonesian, Dutch, or African, it is all those things. Ankara is partly a legacy of the dark history of European colonialism, imperialism, and slavery; it is also a bright and beautiful multicultural textile art that is just one part of the distinct, multifaceted, and ever evolving cultures of West African people.