Africans have worn a beautiful wax cloth for centuries known as Ankara. However, what is not well-known about this cloth is its place of origin. During a recent media studies lecture, I surprisingly learnt that this ubiquitous cloth is of Dutch origin. It is created in the Netherlands, by Dutch designers, operating in a Dutch company. However, the profitable market for this cloth is not in Europe, but in African countries (Edoh 2016).
It is worn, loved, popularised and associated with Africans. It carries great sentiment for many African women, as it is passed down through multiple generations. It is worn with enormous pride and has established symbolic meaning within the African culture (Edoh 2016). There is a clear paradox here. Tension lies in the question as to whether this cloth is European or African.
Some would argue this to be a form of imperialism and that these cloths should not be regarded as African. This trade is said to stem from colonial routes, thus many advocate for it to be dismantled. It is seen that Europeans are economically benefiting from this cloth that they have supposedly imposed on Africans. In their capital-driven perspectives, they continue to research about African cultures to stay updated on their trends and tastes (Edoh 2016). It is argued that they are imitating African cultures for profit, which is incredibly undermining and condescending.
On the contrary, a study was conducted which comprised of interviews with the Dutch designers. It was found that these designers are not attempting to mock African cultures, but have merely discovered a market in which they can creatively express themselves and simply do what they love (Edoh 2016). Their practices are driven by a code of ethics and they see themselves purely as producers and Africans as consumers; as opposed to oppressor and oppressed.
As someone who understands the significance of culture in society, I could not possibly refer to this material as European. That is because meaning is generated within culture and Europeans have not established any cultural significance with this cloth. As postcolonial Africans, it is within our duty to decolonise ourselves and continuously strive for emancipation. However, our liberation is often restricted as we wear European-designed clothes, support colonial trade systems and even speak European languages. Thus, it is our obligation to establish ways in which to reconcile this. Owing to that, it is vital for Africans to wear these textiles and materials in a socially-conscious way. We need to be aware of its origins and its meanings within a postcolonial context, in order to wear it with pride.
What is your opinion on this tension? Let us know if you think the Ankara cloths should be referred to as African or European.
Edoh, M.A. (2016). Redrawing Power? Dutch Wax Cloth and the Politics of ‘Good Design’. Journal of Design History, 29(3), pp.258-272.
Jean, N. B. (2014). Wax Print: What is Ankara? What is Ankara Fabric? Retrieved August 29, 2019 From: https://www.allthingsankara.com/2014/09/wax-print-what-is-ankara-what-is-ankara-fabric.html