Stories and Storytellers: The Naming of Textiles in West Africa

by William Kynan-Wilson

A man wearing a fabric known as Small Star at the Place de l’Etoile Rouge (Red Star monument), Cotonou, Benin on May 22, 2015 (photo by William Kynan-Wilson)

The everyday, visual landscape of West Africa is dominated by brightly coloured and boldly patterned fabrics made through wax-resist printing (Figs. 1, 2 and 3). The history of these textiles and their cultural value is diverse. This essay will therefore focus upon a discrete aspect of their reception: the names and the naming processes given to these fabrics by different communities in both West Africa and Europe, and how they open up important questions regarding cultural exchange and appropriation.

Fig. 2: Detail of a man wearing a wax-print suit decorated with the design Flèche New at the Royal Palaces of Abomey, Benin on May 20, 2015 (photo by Luise Illigen) | Fig. 3: A fabric seller in Lomé, Togo on May 15, 2015 (photo by Combiz Moussavi-Aghdam)

The story of these fabrics and their varied nomenclature reflects Africa’s fraught colonial past and its tangled global future. The technique of wax-resist printing travelled from Indonesia in the nineteenth century, when it was known as the Dutch East Indies, to West Africa through uncertain channels. It is believed that Ghanaian soldiers who served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in the nineteenth century returned home with examples of batik textiles (1).

A Dutch company continues to be at the centre of wax-printed textiles in West Africa: Vlissingen & co, which later contracted to Vlisco (the name by which they are popularly known), was established in 1846 at Helmond, a suburb of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. To this very day they continue to design prints in Holland for export to West Africa.

It is important to note that the fabric-makers are not the storytellers. Vlisco accords each pattern an inventory number upon manufacture, but it is the local communities that sell and wear these textiles who invent the names for individual designs.

The monikers ranges from the playful to the poetic to the peculiar: Michelle Obama’s purse (2) (Fig. 4), Live and Let Live (3) (Fig. 5), and Kofi Annan’s Brain (4) (Fig. 6), to name just a few. The designs record historic events, popular culture, individual aspirations, vernacular sayings, local flora, economic concerns, marital status, didactic messages, colonial independence, political personalities, and material wealth.

Fig. 4: Michelle Obama’s Purse (photo by The Vlisco Group) | Fig. 5: Detail of Live and Let Live (photo by The Vlisco Group) | Fig. 6: Detail of Kofi Annan’s Brain, which was released around the time that Kofi Annan became Secretary General of the United Nations (photo by The Vlisco Group)

A further layer of complexity and richness is apparent when one considers that the same pattern is known under many different names. Figures 7 and 8, for example, illustrate an abstract pattern of undulating blue wave motifs against a brilliant pink backdrop (5). This single design is described in revealingly different ways: in Ghana it is called Senchi Bridge in reference to a notoriously swaying suspension bridge; in Togo the same pattern is a symbol of change known as Aganmakpo, meaning the back of a chameleon; while in the Ivory Coast this pattern is called La Danse à la Mode after a war in that country.

Fig. 7 and 8: Senchi Bridge, Aganmakpo, or La Danse à la Mode (photo by The Vlisco Group)

Codifying the Stories

In recent years, Vlisco has become aware of the vibrant traditions that have accrued around their fabrics. A section of their website, entitled Vlisco Stories, celebrates the stories that different patterns from their extensive archive evoke (6). This is, on the one hand, an astute commercial ploy that entwines heritage and nostalgia as a means of underlining the firm’s historical connections with West Africa. In part, it is a counter to the claim that this company and their designs are ‘un-African’ (7). On the other hand, the website indicates how organic and diverse local, vernacular responses to these patterns truly are: many of the fabrics displayed online are named yet unexplained – their meanings continue to elude the creators of these designs.

The plurality of stories and storytellers reveals a curious tension. The names attached to these fabrics by African consumers represent one mode of appropriation, by which local communities take ownership of these foreign-made textiles through labelling. Equally, Vlisco’s cataloguing of these names demonstrates a desire to recover an ownership of sorts; it celebrates the African reception of these materials while also underlining their European production. Nomenclature is a means of appropriation, and it works both ways.

A new layer to this story of transcultural exchange and appropriation is the production of cheap imitation fabrics in China, which represents a significant shift in the manufacturing of these textiles since the 1990s (8). Indeed, this development represents a full circle of sorts: these fabrics are once more being produced in Asia for export to Africa. This pattern of globalisation is just a microcosm of the extensive Chinese investment and influence playing out across the African continent.

The issue of ownership is complicated by the transcultural nature of these textiles: the patterns are produced with an Indonesian technique, travelled to Africa as a result of European colonialism, owe their commercial success to West Africa, and are now manufactured around the world in Holland, West Africa and Asia. It is telling that there is such a debate regarding the ‘ownership’ of these textiles in the first place.

The Limitations of Labelling

The truly hybrid nature of these textiles, and the limitations of simple labelling, is also reflected in their visual iconography, as two brief examples demonstrate. The first design is known as Angelina, Cigar Band or Addis Ababa (Fig. 9). The first name references the title of an African pop song admired at the time that the pattern was first released in 1962, while the final name vaguely indicates Coptic altar cloths from Ethiopia, from which the central motif of this design is taken (9).

Another pattern, known as Ecriture Chinoise (Chinese Writing) (Fig. 10), is visually dominated by yellow Arabic script set against a deep blue background. The script resembles a tughra, the calligraphic signatures of the Ottoman sultans; and the whole design recalls a carpet, possibly a prayer rug, which further underlines the influence of Islamic visual culture. A final complication is alluded to via the name of this design, which erroneously identifies the text as Chinese.

Fig. 9: Detail of Angelina, Cigar Band or Addis Ababa (photo by The Vlisco Group) | Fig. 10: Ecriture Chinoise (photo by The Vlisco Group)

Further evidence of the diverse iconographic sources at play in these designs is to be found in Charles A. Beving’s historic collection of West African textiles. Beving (1858–1913) was, in his own words, an “Africa merchant” who traded in textiles and later became an owner of a cotton printing company in England (10). He regularly travelled to Africa for business and bought a range of local fabrics from across the continent. His collection contains almost 500 textiles, which pre-date the year 1913; it ranks as one of the earliest and most important documented collections of African fabrics in the world (11).

The Beving Collection underlines the reciprocal exchange between European and African designers. It contains dozens of brilliant wax-printed fabrics, but it also holds examples of traditional weaving and textile design from across Africa, as well as batik work from Java. These textiles were collected so as to provide inspiration for British designers at Beving’s Manchester factory. The resulting patterns were then exported to West Africa (12). The ways in which African visual culture was collected, assimilated and repackaged by European designers represents a complex yet crucial area of further research, which illuminates a lesser-known chapter of colonialism.

In sum, the power of these textiles resides in their malleability. They elude simple categorization: they transcend social class, the distinction between high and low cultures, popular and oral traditions. Equally, these textiles cannot be classed as purely European, African, or Asian; the desire to categorise them thus — by all parties — reflects varying modes of cultural appropriation: as a way of stressing historic ties, shedding the shackles of colonialism, or fulfilling economic ends. For these reasons they call out to be studied and collected, worn and displayed — but how and by whom remain open questions.


Footnotes

(1) See Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, “The Story of Vlisco and Real Dutch Wax: From Helmond to Accra to Paris and Back Again,” in Vlisco Fabrics, Eds. R. Gerards/S. May Sho (Arnhem: ArtEZ Press, 2012), 311.

(2) This pattern was designed by Marjo Penninx in 2008 — the year in which Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States. It is also known as ‘LV,’ which stands for Luis Vuitton [Superwax Archive: A1106]. See Gerards/Sho, 293.

(3) This design is also known as Biri Kam Biri and Oniye (Plume d’Oiseaux). It was designed by Mari Althuizen in 1988 [Wax Block Archive: 14/4363]. See Gerards/Sho, 272–273.

(4) Designed by Jac van Hoof in 1998 [Wax Block: 14/5124]. See Gerards/Sho, 277.

(5) This pattern, which was designed by Antoon van Doopen, dates to 1956 [Wax Block Archive: H876]. See Gerards/Sho, 260–261.

(6) See Vlisco, “Stories,” https://stories.vlisco.com/en/.

(7) See Tunde M. Akinwumi, “The ‘African Print’ Hoax: Machine Produced Textiles Jeopardize African Print Authenticity,” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2 (2008) : 179–192.

(8) See Cronberg, 313.

(9) This pattern was designed by Toon van de Manakker [Java Archive: 2961R]. See Gerards/Sho, 264–265.

(10) See The British Museum, “Charles A Beving (Biographical Details),” http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=41572.

(11) Beving’s son donated the collection to the British Museum in 1934. For further details see H. J. Braunholtz, “The ‘Charles Beving’ Collection of Textiles,” British Museum Quarterly 8 (1933/4) : 151–152. The archive has also been digitized: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?people=41572&peoA=41572-3-9.

(12) See Akinwumi, 183.


References

Akinwumi, Tunde M. “The ‘African Print’ Hoax: Machine Produced Textiles Jeopardize African Print Authenticity.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2 (2008) : 179–192.

Braunholtz, H. J. “The ‘Charles Beving’ Collection of Textiles.” British Museum Quarterly 8 (1933/4) : 151–152.

Cronberg, Anja Aronowsky. “The Story of Vlisco and Real Dutch Wax: From Helmond to Accra to Paris and Back Again.” Vlisco Fabrics. Eds. Gerards, R./May Sho, S. Arnhem: ArtEZ Press, 2012. 310–314.

Gerards, R./May Sho, S. (Eds.). Vlisco Fabrics. Arnhem: ArtEZ Press, 2012.

The British Museum. “Charles A Beving (Biographical Details).” The British Museum Website 2015. 22 Jul. 2015 <http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=41572>.

The British Museum. “Collection Donated by Charles A Beving.” The British Museum Website 2015. 22 Jul. 2015<http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?people=41572&peoA=41572-3-9>.

Vlisco. “Stories.” Vlisco Website 2015. 22 Jul. 2015 <https://stories.vlisco.com/en/>.


Cite this page: 
Kynan-Wilson, William. “Stories and Storytellers: The Naming of Textiles in West Africa.” From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo. The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog. Ed. Baader, Hannah. August 2016 <https://medium.com/from-traditional-to-contemporary-aesthetic/stories-and-storytellers-the-naming-of-textiles-in-west-africa-d9a089fe8b19#.pwahoayrd>.