Beautiful dresses made from Wax printed fabric by Vlisco at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is part of African identity. Image: Vlisco
PHILADELPHIA – What is the real origin of the textile material that many Nigerians have come to know as Ankara. Is it manufactured in Nigeria or somewhere in African as many people have been thinking? These are the questions Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage, an exhibition of designs made from the wax printed textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art tries to unravel.
Although the wax printed textile is associated with Central and West Africa, the fabric has a layered and surprising history that transcends Africa. For decades, this beautiful material with bold and colorful designs has been designed and manufactured in Europe, and now China and India.
The luxurious wax prints now associated with Africa have their origins in the Netherlands. The story began in 1846 with a company known as Vlisco. Soon after the company was founded, it began exporting imitation batiks to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Three decades after Vlisco started exporting batiks to the Dutch East Indies, it found a new market in West Africa. It did not take long before the material became an integral part of the African culture.
Across Africa, African men and women wear the textile material with so much dignity. In addition to African attire, they are made into handbags, shoes, curtains, pillow cases, curtains and so much more. The fascination for the wax printed fabric in many African countries is not just because of the luxury: Its bold and colorful patterns made many claim it is authentic African. That sense of authenticity is why many Africans have embraced the fabric as theirs. Nigeria is a great example.
In Nigeria, the beautiful textile with bold and colorful patterns is known as Ankara. If you ask a Nigerian woman where Ankara comes from, she will either say Nigeria or point to another African country. Wrong as the answer may be, it is understandable. Ankara is a major part of the Nigerian culture identity. In pre-independence Nigeria, Ankara served as an important instrument for political statements. Political organizations and groups wore different forms of Ankara to make political statements and confront the British colonialists.
Soon after Nigeria gained independence, Ankara took a different meaning: It become the textile for making fashion statements. Many Nigerian designers began making incredible designs and African wear from Ankara. Borrowing from indigenous and Western designs, they created some amazing designs. Before long, the textile transcended the need to express design sense, to an opportunity to express family unity and solidarity. During birthday parties, weddings and other social events, it is not unusual to see families and friends dressed in Ankara as Aso Ebi.
Aso Ebi (Family Clothe/textile) is a uniform dress that allows friends and family to show unity during festivals and ceremonies. While each member of a family or group has the freedom to design the fabric the way he or she wants, the common thread is the fabric’s bold and beautiful designs. The styles could include headwraps, iro and buba, gele, fila, skirts, maxi dress, kufis and many other designs.
The use of the wax printed fabric as indicator of national identity is not limited to Nigeria. Known in many African countries by other names, these beautiful textile materials have helped shaped the concept of fashion across Africa. From Senegal to Mali, Cameroon, and Ethiopia, the fabric continues to be appropriated in different ways to enhance geographical identity.
The association of African identity with the wax printed textile has led to a relabeling. When the printed fabrics leave Vlisco, they are identified only by a stock number. In the African market space, however, they are renamed and assume new meanings. In Idumota and other markets where these fabrics are sold, female traders who sell them have devised appropriate ways of identifying them. They give them names based on proverbs, current events, politics, religion, and material culture. It is not unusual for a design to have multiple meanings and interpretations. Depending on where the fabric is used and what it is used for, it continues to morph with new meanings.
The naming and renaming of the fabric have enhanced their context of usage, giving them social meaning, status, and value in African societies. The cultural assimilation of the fabric with their beautiful prints has continued to enhance their relevance in African societies. Many of the designs on display show how integral the textiles have become to the African experience.
The main objective of the show is to celebrate the work of dressmakers through an investigation of the textile used. On display are classic and new designs from the Vlisco collection and in-house design team. Also on display is a selection of contemporary fashions by African and European designers.
This is perhaps the most beautiful of Creative Africa, a series of exhibitions focusing of Africa at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Beautifully curated, the platform at the center of the room is the core of the show. Crowded with mannequins dressed in beautifully designed couture made from the wax-patterned fabric, the runway allows for a significant understanding of how designers are using the fabric. Some of Africa’s celebrated designers are represented here. They include: Pepita Djoffon, Leonie Amangoua, Josephine Memel and Ruhimbasa Nyenyezi Seraphine, Lanre da Silva Ajayi, with Philadelphia’s own Ikire Jones. Some of the designs include wedding gowns, dinner dresses, gowns and shirts.
This exhibition explicates the complexities of identity. Dilys Blum, the museum’s senior curator of costume and textiles and mastermind behind the Vlisco is apt when she said: “You have to accept this idea that where something is made doesn’t limit its identity.” Since identity is always in constant flux, it is not surprising that this beautiful fabric made in the Netherlands is African. Although the striking wax-coated cotton fabrics from which many of the designs on display were made in another country, Africans have claimed them as theirs.