On the Myth of the Authentic

China copied Dutch copied Indonesian wax-printed textiles designed exclusively for the West African market over a period of 350 years.

“From the 17th century onwards batiks made their appearance in West Africa. They became more widespread during the 19th century when several thousand freed slaves from the Dutch East Indian Army that had served in Java (1831 and 1872) returned to Africa dressed in batik cloth.

However, wax-print in its current version only appeared towards the end of the 19th century, at the peak of the European textile export to West Africa. Previously, with the invention of the Javanaise, the Dutch had produced industrialised
batiks for the Dutch East Indian market (present-day Indonesia) where they attempted to undercut the prices of local handmade batiks.

But the industrialised reproduction process was poor in quality as it left fine lines on the fabric that resulted from the cracking of the wax technique. Largely unappreciated by the Javanese, these signs of imperfection became highly appreciated in West Africa.

European producers were forced to conquer new markets in order to avoid the closing of European factories. It is in this context that the commercial trade networks in the Gulf of Guinea offered an opportunity for the establishment of new markets while taking advantage of commercial relations that had already been established since the formation of the spice route.

The successful transfer of batik to the West African market was engendered by a longterm process of adaptation to local demand and aesthetics, which were, in fact, very different from their Javanese equivalents. The fabric had several advantages that were greatly appreciated in the Gulf of Guinea, especially its lightness and softness and its chromatic resistance to the sun and to frequent washing. The distinctive character of the fabric’s texture, differentiating each yard of cloth with its subtle lines and cracks that resulted from the manufacture process, was particularly valued.

These important local criteria provided the ground for the wax-print to enter the highly competitive textile market. In a lengthy process of making the fabric appropriate for the requirements of the African market, wax-prints’s size was altered, the colours were modified, the flexibility of the cotton was improved and the Javanese patterns were adapted by incorporating Guinea coast iconographies..”
Learn more about the Chinese and Pakistan taking over the Dutch wax production and the history of business “controlled by a colonial economy and dominated by a global history of unequal exchange” from Nina Sylvanus’s The Fabric of Africanity: Tracing the Global Threads of Authenticity, Anthropological Theory 2007; 7;201.

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