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Whose print is it anyway?

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
07 October 2017   |   3:42 am
Cue Stella McCartney who infuriated African fashion fans across the globe when she sent her lily white models (She used just the one black model) down the runway in prints and designs often favoured by women across the continent as daywear.

Ah, Stella, what have you gone and done then? Or have you not learnt from missteps of those before you – Burberry Prorsum, Marni, Roberto Cavalli, Gwen Stefani to name a few. Or perhaps times have changes, and Africans have got ‘woke’ about cultural appropriation they would have otherwise applauded five years ago.

Who remembers Design: Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B Spring 2011 collection in 2011? African fashionistas, editors and the few handful fashion bloggers we had at time went berserk: an American recognising and using African print; how marvellous! Blogs and magazines ran lists of Western celebrities wearing African print – a colonial by-product perhaps, the intrinsic pride in begin recognised by the erstwhile master. Only a year later, when Burberry Prorsum showcased their Lisa Folawiyo inspired African print designs, there were as many raised eyebrows as raised hands reaching for the Ankara macs on the Burberrry racks.

September 2017. Cue Stella McCartney who infuriated African fashion fans across the globe when she sent her lily white models (She used just the one black model) down the runway in prints and designs often favoured by women across the continent as daywear.

“Are we going to talk about Stella McCartney using Ankara prints, meanwhile there was only ONE African model on her runway?!” asked writer Amarachi Nwosu on Twitter, while another Twitter use FK Abudu tweeted, “Ankara dresses that Mr Folarin will make for less than 10k.”

Alongside criticism of overused and overpriced designs, there was also cries of cultural appropriation. Online magazine, OkayAfrica accused the designer of ‘fashion colonialism’ requesting that Western designers “please stop taking designs that Africans have been wearing for years, calling them your own, and charging people out the ass for them.”

Meanwhile Damilola Animashaun writing for Konbini.com concedes that while “Well-intended appropriation can be a good thing” creating a cultural exchange and enriching the available vocabulary for fashion, “When fashion houses of the dominant race include traditionally ‘African’ prints and clothes on their runway, they are applauded for inclusion and gain monetary value for doing what the oppressed are being mocked for.”

While I feel the ire towards the lack of diversity and inclusion on the runway of a leading international designer despite the inclusion in her culturally inspired designs, I have difficulty appreciating the cultural appropriation accusation of the critics.

Whose fabric is Ankara anyway?
Long associated with Africa in the minds of many, the history of African print, also called Dutch wax (the clue is in the name) is much more nuanced. They originated with an Indonesian batik technique that was replicated and mass-produced by the Dutch. With the arrival of the colonialists, wax-resist fabrics, originally designed for Asian colonies with similar climes as Africa, such as Indonesia, was imported into Africa. The African relish of colourful fabrics made them an instant success leading to customised designs adapted to reflect local tradition and culture.

The customization came about as a result of an accident. Dutch textile manufacturers, in adapting the Indonesian wax-resist printing method to a dual roller system, experienced a few technical problems. Their method could not remove all the wax from the cloth. This left spots that resisted colour and to make matters worse, when a new colour was added, it would bleed into adjacent colour. The dual-roller fabric was intended for the Indonesian market. But the Indonesians viewed the fabric with its spots and bleeding colours as spoilt and had no use for it. Somehow, the spoilt fabric found its way into the African marketplace and clients fell in love with the cloth, then known as Dutch Wax.

What became known as Ankara fabric emerged on the scene when the Turks started making a cheaper version. It was named Ankara after the capital city of Turkey; where the fabric was manufactured and shipped from. In Nigeria, who’s vast and insatiable market provided an absorption point for the Ankara cloth, thus sustaining its productionin Turkey, companies such as UAC and Zabadne and Co, were the primary importers of Dutch Wax and later Ankara in the 1970s.

Made by the Dutch originally for the Indonesian market, reproduced at a cheaper cost by the Turks where its got its name in Nigeria from, to date much of this type of fabric that’s used and sold in Africa is still produced in the Netherlands.

Yinka Shonibare, the well-known Nigerian artist whose work often features these prints, has made a career out of exploring the history of the designs. Among the most famous of his paintings are those re-created using headless dummies with “Africanised” clothing instead of their original costumes, such as Gainsborough’s Mr andMrs Andrews Without Their Heads(1998) and Reverend on Ice (2005).

A key material in Shonibare’s art since 1994, African print’s appeal for Shonibare is that it is a sign of cultural amalgamation and globalisation. “People have come to associate the fabric with Africa, but actually it is Indonesian-influenced fabric produced by the Dutch for sales to the African market. It was made in Hyde, near Manchester, and I buy it in Brixton market. I like the fact that something seen as being African is actually the product of quite complex cultural relationships,” he said in a 2013 interview.

If we heed Shonibare’s words and the origins of African print, can we really accuse McCartney of cultural appropriation of African print which is only African in name?