Deconstructing the Concept of 'African Print' in the Ghanaian Experience.

AuthorEssel, Osuanyi Quaicoo


There is a terminological dispute among scholars over the use of the term African print in a collective sense in reference to European and Asiatic wax prints and the indigenous fabric prints of Africa (Akinwuni, 2008; Jefferson, 1974). The generalisation of authentic African prints with European and Asiatic wax prints forcefully blur the sharp distinction between the prints. This has caused some scholars to contest the appendage of the collective term African print to European and Asiatic fabric brands, mostly sold in Central and West Africa. Scholars like Jefferson (1974) and Akinwuni (2008) have expressed academic interest in the deconstruction and reconstruction of the term. Thus, delving briefly into the textiles decorative techniques of Ghana and other African nations and the roots of the so-called African print remain paramount in the process of definitional reconstruction.

Wax print fabrics are characterised by a waxy venial effect, and patchy designs because of the varying manner of wax applications such as cracking and splattering of the wax in the printing process of fabrics. As in batiks, the wax prints produce duplex printing effects. In Africa, wax print fabrics bear different brand names in different countries. Some of the names are Uniwax, Woodin, GTP (Young, 2012), Chitenge, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java Hollandis, Abada, Ankara, Real English Wax and Ukpo (Akinwumi, 2008; Uqalo, 2015). Others are Lappa (Liberia, Sierra Leone), Wrappa, Pagne (Francophone West Africa) and Kanga (East Africa) (International Bicycle Fund, 1995). Other brand labels ascribed to African print are as featured in Table 1. Uqalo (2015) classified wax print into two: real wax and imi wax. The real wax is Indonesian inspired machine-made batik cloth with duplex effect, wherein wax, is used as a resisting agent to avoid dye absorption which comes with an interesting linearity due to the cracking effects of the wax. Real wax is expensive than imi wax, with China as a leading producer (90%) (Uqalo, 2015). Imi wax also referred to as a fancy print, creates the impression of a computer-generated 'crack' effect when printed, wherein only one side of the fabric is printed, with the other side of the fabric, left blank.

The Asiatic continent (China, India, Thailand and Indonesia) produces 83% by volume and 71% by value of so-called African print. Africa produces only 15% by volume and holds 21% value as shown in Table 2. It is evident from the table that the African fabric market has been Asianised with Europe having 1% volume and 8% value.

The collapse of many textile manufacturing and garment industries and decline in production of the few remaining is blamed on smuggled imports of pirated local designs from Asiatic countries including China, India and Pakistan (United States International Trade Commission, 2009; Quartey, 2006; Axelsson, 2012; Uqalo, 2015) sold at cheap prices. In addition, erratic power (electric) supply, high cost of electric power, low production of the few remaining textiles industries, and inadequate financing are some of the problems plaguing this sector.

Irrespective of the technology used, its origin and the designers' background, whether the designers are influenced by certain aspects of the long established African fabric design technology or not, once their target is the African market, they loosely label the fabric as African Print just to induce the African buyer. Taking the deconstruction approach, this article delves into the historical and circumstantial issues that have contributed to the gross generalisation of authentic African prints with 'foreign' ones that have overshadowed the former. The article also examines what constitutes authentic African print, the President Kwame Nkrumah's factor of indigenising Eurocentric and Asiatic wax prints in pre and post-independent Ghana.

Surface and Structural Textiles Decorative Techniques in Pre-Colonial Africa

Several studies have documented the surface and structural textiles decorative techniques of Africa (Sackey, 2002; Clarke 1997; Picton, 1995; Heathcote, 1974). Surface decorative techniques are the decorative effects that are introduced to the fabric after its structural construction. In other words, they are the surface decorative effects done to enhance the surface quality of the fabric. They include dyeing, painting, printing, embroidery and applique. The structural decorative techniques on the other hand are those effects that come with the basic forming of the fabric structure. Structural decoration is the anatomical patterns and arrangement which characterise a textile fabric or article due to its method of construction. Examples are bonding, felting, netting, weaving, knitting and crocheting. Printing, which is one of the surface decorative techniques, is of interest in this article.

The Adinkra stamped cloth printing of Ghana (Rattary, 1927; Glover, 1969, Willis, 1998; Ofori-Ansa, 1999; Fosu, 1994) is an ancient printing art, practised by the Asante. It involves the designing of symbols, which are transferred onto calabash stamps for printing. The block design is dipped into the local dye named Adinkra Aduro, and stamped repetitively to form interesting patterns in the fabric. Adinkra printing technology of the Asantes was long established before colonialists invasion (Essel & Opoku-Mensah, 2014). Besides, ancient Egyptian cloth printing technology dating back to 5000BC (African Heritage, 2013), and other printing art traditions of Africa is evident of the existence of the art before the introduction of the 'foreign' wax print wrongly labelled with the generic term African print. It is obvious that the wax print culture is not authentically African. Labelling it as African print is therefore, deceptive. The ethnic cloth printing technology of Africa such as the Egyptian fabric printing culture, adinkra printing of Ghana, and others in Africa are the authentic African prints. Globalising European and Asiatic wax prints in the African market does not make them African prints. Korhogo Cloth (Ivory Coast), Adire (Nigeria), Bogolanfini ('mud cloth' from Mali), Kente (Ghana), and Dogon Cloth (Mali, Burkina Faso) are examples of woven cloths that are authentically African and desired to be named as such. Young (2012) in his article titled Africa's Fabric is Dutch, creates the impression that Africa has no cloth making tradition and usage with the exception of Dutch wax print. To reinforce this point he added that 95% of the customer-base of wax print is African.

Brief History of European Version of 'African Print'

The Dutch wax print that has gained popularity in Africa since the nineteenth century was originally inspired by ancient Indian batik tradition. This Indian batik art spread to Indonesian Island (Java, south of Borne) and Japan. The art experienced shades of evolutionary perfections amongst Javanese of Indonesia before the turn of the thirteenth century (Akinwumi, 2008; Young, 2012). Its design and usage amongst the people of Indonesia served as symbol of clan identity, fertility of women, initiation and marriage (Lindholm, 1979; and Newman, 1977 as cited in Akinwumi, 2008). The Javanese later introduced other symbolic and non-symbolic designs inspired by their encounter with their Indians, Chinese and Dutch colonisers. When the Dutch gained full colonial control of the Javanese in the seventeenth century, they imbibed the batik art of the Javanese and began the production of wax prints...

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