Africa Batik


The story goes that the Belanda Hitam, Malay for Black Dutchman, brought batik to West Africa in the mid-nineteenth century after serving as indentured soldiers for the Dutch in Indonesia. Returning home from 15-year conscriptions, legend says the men brought back trunks of fine Javanese batik, covered in opulent patterns that captured the imagination of their friends and relatives. It’s a very neat story, but unfortunately, as any scholar will tell you, textile history is a sticky wicket. Of the 3080 recruits from 1831-1872, only a handful returned to West Africa (many married Javanese women), and those that did make it back, usually returned empty-handed; the recruits were not paid until they reached their final port, which would have made souvenir shopping pretty difficult.

In fact, Batik is older than history, with traces even laced in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies. Most people think of South East Asia when they hear batik, and indeed the word derives from several Malay words, but nations as diverse as Japan and India have had their own, sometimes isolated, traditions of the process. Batiks were as good as gold for much of history, and were enthusiastically traded among Asian neighbors as early as the seventh century. Europeans entered the mix much later, but they became the major pushers of “woven cargoes” from the seventeenth century on, and some colonial powers, most notably the Dutch (during their Golden Age), had a heavy hand in industrializing the technique.

Of course, this doesn’t quite explain how, or when, batik got to Africa. Dutch Scholar Ineke van Kessel suggests the fabrics came from India to West Africa by land, not sea, over the ancient trans-Saharan routes. Local populations like the Yoruba in Nigeria incorporated aspects of the wax printing into their tradition textiles, and little by little the trend caught on. When the Dutch and English began trolling the coast of West Africa in the seventeenth century, they brought their wax (wax batiks) and non-wax (roller prints) fabrics, targeting a local population already poised for their consumption. With time, they began tailoring their European-produced prints to refined African tastes, tweaking designs down to each region and port.

Batik cloth, in its original handcrafted form, and its derivative roller print (often confusingly called real Dutch wax print) is ubiquitous and highly cherished across West Africa today. Prints range from abstract geometry to figurative images, and beyond. For many men and women, the patterns are a form of expression and even communication, announcing everything from their marital status and mood, to their political and religious beliefs. Up until the 1960s most wax prints were still produced in Europe, but in the post-colonial era, that all changed. Ghana boasts three of the finest wax print manufacturers in Africa: Woodin, GTP (sister of Vlisco in Holland), and ATL (sister of ABC textiles in Manchester). Unfortunately, legal and illegal Chinese and Nigerian copies have flooded the markets of late, and many, especially GTP, have seriously suffered.

There are examples of batik textiles in many parts of Africa but the most developed skills are to be found in Nigeria where the Yoruba people make adire cloths. Two methods of resist are used: adire eleso which involves tied and stitched designs, which is akin to tie-dye and adire eleko where starch paste is used. The paste is most often made from cassava (a root plant) flour, rice, alum or copper sulphate boiled together to produce a smooth thick paste. The Yoruba of West Africa use cassava paste as a resist while the people of Senegal use rice paste. The paste is applied in two different ways.

The first method of application is the freehand drawing of traditional designs using a feather, thin stick, piece of fine bone or a metal or wooden comb-like tool. This is done by women.

In the second method, the resist is forced through a thin metal stencil with a flexible metal or wooden tool. This enables accurate repeat patterns to be achieved. This is done by men.

The patterning of cloth is usually a family tradition handed down from mother to daughter as a cottage industry. The cloth is usually divided into squares or rectangles and designs represent everyday tools, carvings, beadwork, activities or traditional images of the artists own culture or tribal history. An eleko cloth is usually made up of two, two and a half yard pieces sewn together.

Many women work alone but group dyeing sessions are more cost effective. The more commercial cloths are the stencil products and are often produced by men. The traditional dye is indigo from a plant which grows throughout Africa. In many places these are now cultivated and different varieties produce a variation of the dark blue colour. Once the paste resist is dry, the fabric is dyed in large clay pots or pits dug in the earth. After drying the paste is scraped off to reveal a white or pale blue design. The usual cloth is cotton but highly prized clothing using wild silk is sometimes produced. In recent years other cloths using African designs have been produced in Britain (Manchester cloths) and Holland. These mass produced fabrics are machine made. Some are now produced in various African countries.

Mud Cloth

This fabric is made by the Bamana people of Mali. The ground fabric is woven of hand spun cotton yarn in narrow strips on the men’s double-heddle loom. The cloth is then dyed yellow and the design applied with river mud. This ‘saddens’ the yellow, turning it dark brown. The yellow dye in the unpainted areas is then discharged with a caustic preparation bleaching out these areas and returning them to their original colour. This produces cloth with the characteristic dark brown and white pattern.

Meanwhile, Batik is a thriving art form across much of Africa; it is to be found in West Africa as well as East, Uganda and Kenya having many batik artists.  Traditional designs as well as modern motifs are prevalent and, in many areas, this long-lived art form has been integrated into contemporary culture and modern clothing.  It shows no sign of dying out at a time when much of the world has turned to industrialized cloth printing and production,

Matokeo ya Utafutaji kwa Batik!

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