Spinning Yarns: how African textiles tell personal and universal tales

The history of African textile design is one of reclamation and storytelling prowess, while contemporary designers use the medium for more intimate and nuanced narratives.

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The power of textiles is held in what they provide for communities. Pattern design makes people feel like they’re part of something and in turn, it is a really powerful craft. If you look at Dutch Wax prints, for example, they are not actually made in Nigeria but are from Indonesia, yet Nigerians wear them as a form of identity. For me, the layers of stories within pattern design are fascinating, and an important subject I wanted us to explore – Yinka Ilori.

Mainstream African fabric design has arguably the most distinctive aesthetic of any international textile industry, yet contradictorily its origins were not even based on the continent. Traditional African wax print designs are made by dying cotton decorated with wax which resists the dye and leaves a pattern – a process inspired by Indonesian/Javanese batik fabric printing. And the pattern designs themselves were also not originally created in Africa. When the Dutch company Vlisco started to industrialise wax printing in the late 19th Century, it found success selling its designs through the market traders of West Africa. However, this is when Africans made it their own. Starting in Ghanaian markets and soon reaching neighbouring countries, the wax print cloth trade really started to take off after the decolonisation of many African nations in the 1950s and 60s, largely thanks to post-independence trading rules, and – in no small part – to the storytelling skills of the female market traders known as Nana Benz (so-called because they liked to spend their riches on Mercedes Benz cars).

“The Nana Benz managed to control the textile market by getting a monopoly on designs, and in a very clever way, gave [the fabrics] names to make them popular and desirable,” explains anthropologist Anne Grosfilley. Anne specialises in African textiles and is an author of the book African Wax Print Textiles published by Éditions de La Martinière, and consultant to brands such as Christian Dior, as well as the curator of the exhibition Fibres Africaines, currently at the Musée de la Toile de Jouy. Anne says that even though the textile patterns hadn’t been designed locally, the Nana Benz imbued them with meaning and stories that would resonate with locals. “Via the designs, they initiated a form of language to express what women want and dream about.” The names would relate to romantic relationships and attitudes, for example, an open cage with a bird flying out was called “if you go out, I go out too,” and a fabric depicting horses was called “I can run faster than my rival”. “Over the years the textiles have become much more than pieces of fabric, they are literally women’s voices,” adds Anne.

After the independence, many mills and textile companies were set up across Africa, so Africans could now design and produce the fabrics that had become intrinsic to their culture. By the 1980s, Togo had the biggest market on the continent for wax prints, with traders coming from all over Africa to buy the latest trends, and the Nana Benz estimated to be responsible for around 40 per cent of all commercial business in the country. Designs took on different meanings and stories depending on the country and region, with sellers adapting the fabrics’ names to their local culture, fables and symbols. In recent years they’ve also come to represent contemporary culture; some fabrics are named after characters from popular Brazilian soap operas, for example, and there are apparently seven designs named after Barack Obama. Similarly, colour also has different meanings: often brown and red for mourning, a white background is used to say thank you to god, red and yellow for everyday fashion, and “more audacious colourways called ‘off’, literally worn to show-off,” Anne says.

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Copyright © Vlisco Group, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

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Copyright © Cha Textiles Ltd, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

“Over the years the textiles have become much more than pieces of fabric, they are literally women’s voices.”

Anne Grosfilley

For something not originated in Africa “the paradox is that wax print has gained, in 125 years, a pan-African dimension,” Anne continues. “It is not originally an African fabric but it is really a pan-African fabric [now]. It can be considered an element that gathers Africans and the African diaspora all over the world.”

In contrast, this “visual power” has a very small impact on the African economy today however, she says – as trade laws changed in 2004 lifting any restrictions on the number of textile imports to many African countries – “fake wax prints from Asia have literally overwhelmed the textile market.” These fabrics are printed digitally to mimic the texture of real wax print, and update traditional Vlisco patterns with more modern colourways to attract younger generations. While this is great for continuing cultural tradition, it’s also hugely damaging for local industry, Anne explains, with many of the mills and textile companies founded in the 60s now closed down. Two companies in Africa still make genuine wax prints, Anne says: Uniwax in the Ivory Coast and AICL in Ghana, the latter being the only one to make wax prints in the traditional way with hand-block printing, Uniwax having digitised elements of its process.

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Copyright © Vlisco Group, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

“People are not conscious enough of that and this is the reason why the African companies have closed one by one,” she says, adding that designers and artists have a real chance to positively impact the industry by connecting with genuine African designers and textile producers. “For me, Yinka Shonibare is one of the very few artists who use wax prints to raise fundamental issues, challenging the relationship between Europe and Africa in the imperialism context. I love his work, but unfortunately, his approach is quite unique, and I think too many contemporary artists only use wax print for its visual impact, in terms of colour and graphic design. It contributes to a very powerful, positive image of urban young Africa today, but it also, in a way, celebrates the decline of the African textile industry. You have to be very careful of the difference between what looks African and what is African. There are many ways to explore the potential of genuine wax prints and to tell new stories,” says Anne. “These designs have been transmitted through generations, they keep connecting people.”

A great example of the evolution of this tradition is the Christian Dior Cruise 2020 collection, which Anne consulted on with artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri, wherein historical wax print designs were intertwined with French Toile de Jouy patterns and tarot imagery. Dior worked with Uniwax on the collection, which Anne says was “really a conversation with African textile designers, who have explored a dual textile heritage”. The result was hugely successful, with real economical impact. “It showed there is huge potential for artists and fashion designers to explore the technique of wax prints.”

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Copyright © Cha Textiles Ltd, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

Countless designers from across Africa and its diaspora have been inspired – directly or indirectly – by the fascinating heritage and storytelling prowess of African pattern design. From Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane, whose work is packed with cultural references to her hometown of Dakar, to Brooklyn-based Nigerian artist Láolú Senbanjo, who uses Yoruba patterns and Nigerian symbols to embed stories in his artworks, which adorn everything from installations to music videos. British Nigerian textile artist Yemi Awosile also uses symbolism heavily in her work, but feels the wax print aesthetic is merely one facet of a far more complex landscape. “Often when you mention African textiles, there tends to be a certain visual aesthetic that comes to mind, very linked to traditional artisan crafts,” she tells It’s Nice That. “But there’s so much richness in African textiles and storytelling, and I’m interested in trying to think about what the future of African textiles can be.”

Yemi’s designs might not look, as she says, like the mainstream vision of African textiles, but they are similarly instilled with stories and personal meaning, often created through the process of actually making them. For example, her Digital Native project in collaboration with the De La Warr Pavilion and Thornwood Care Home, came about through conversations with people living with dementia. Its motifs were drawn from workshops held by Yemi, and looked to connect older generations more familiar with hand-crafted techniques, and younger “digital natives”, in a creative way. Another project titled Orishirishi – a Nigerian Yoruba term meaning “assortment of different things” – presented textiles as a way to maintain ownership over one’s identity, seeing materials as an “arrangement of experiences”.

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Copyright © Cha Textiles Ltd, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

“I’ve had people say, oh that doesn’t look very African, but it is! How can you say that?”

Yemi Awosile

“You can use textiles as a way to say something about yourself,” Yemi says. Where African wax prints have been used widely by multiple generations to do so in their fashion choices, her work aims to do so through an alternative approach. A current project with Kingston University Library through the Stanley Picker Gallery, represents the artist’s own personal feelings about being part of the African diaspora, working with hand-dyed materials sourced from Nigeria, but created by Yemi in her London studio. “I’m Nigerian-British, so I like to represent the two in my work.” Conceptually it also manifests her dual identity, depicting two clocks. Yemi explains that Nigeria and the UK share the same time for half of the year, but when daylight savings time happens, the times are no longer in sync and she turns up for conversations an hour late or early. “For me, that’s the feeling of being part of the diaspora, where you feel connected but disconnected at the same time.”

Going in a different direction to mainstream African textile design, Yemi – and many of her peers, she says – has encountered her fair share of naysayers. “I’ve had people say, oh that doesn’t look very African, but it is! How can you say that?” she laughs. “It’s just not been branded in the same way. I think [wax prints] are really beautiful and eye-catching, but it’s one aspect of African textile design, there are layers to the story.” Yemi has increasingly been connecting with other African artists spanning from Mozambique to South Africa and Nigeria, hoping to explore those layers and how a new generation can innovate with African textiles. One such collaboration she mentions is focused on people’s personal connection with garments, and why we cling to certain items while throwing others away. “We’re questioning what it is about that garment that makes you hold on to it, and how can we design with that in mind?” The project has so far seen the designers create a lexicon of symbols, which people could potentially apply to a garment over time to encapsulate important messages or events. “The idea is that people would pass it down to their children, and that by looking at the symbols you could literally read that journey over time; a way to chronicle key moments in your life.” In this way, with a mindset not unlike the Nana Benz but in an entirely new way, Yemi is finding ways to weave stories into the yarns themselves.

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Copyright © Vlisco Group, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

The Power of Storytelling with Yinka Ilori

This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by the artist, Yinka Ilori. To read further pieces from Yinka’s curation click on the link below.

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Copyright © Vlisco Group, 2021. Courtesy of Éditions de La Martinière, taken from African Wax Print Textiles by Anne Grosfilley.

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, now overseeing the website’s daily editorial output. Contact her with stories, pitches and tips relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

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