One day, as I found myself in the deep, charged corners of black woke tumblr I came across a video in which a young man was explaining to his younger cousins the importance of being acquainted with one’s history. The young man and his cousins were apparently first generation Americans with Nigerian parents. But unlike his cousins, the young man seemed to care very much about this communal African heritage that they share. At some point in the video, he laid pieces of ankara fabric on a table and began a homily about how he could see his ancestors and their daily rituals immortalised in the patterns.
Granted—fabric and fashion are very significant to society and cultural identity but I instinctively got upset at that point in the video. Initially, I could not put a finger on my particular annoyance as it was automatic. It was only later that I realised I was disturbed because it reminded me of the very common misconception: that what is generally known today as ankara fabric is exclusively African. And that these fabrics are, consequentially, implicated in the long term African history and culture.
In these times, when cultural appropriation has become a recurrent topic of conversation, it is easy to find debates in which ankara fabric is cited with regards to Africa. In fact, some politically conscious people sometimes get offended when clothing brands use fabric with patterns that have been tagged African—even though this implied exclusive African ownership is misinformed.
The prints known today as ankara go back to when the founder of the Netherlandish company, Vlisco Group came to West Africa to find a new market for his multi-cultural inspired fabric in the late 19th century. His prints and fabrics—inspired by Chinese, Indian, Javan, Arabic and European imageries—so flourished in this new market that slowly it became the next big thing and West African elites caught its fever. About a century later, in the 1960s, when many West and Central African countries gained their independence, their governments prioritised local industry. This left Vlisco, like many other foreign companies, with the choice of either packing up or remodelling their production and distribution lines to incorporate as many indigenes into the company and its processes. It then established local production facilities in Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire. Today, the entire design and production process for three out of the four Vlisco Group brands (GTP, Woodin, Uniwax and Vlisco) take place in Africa, primarily in Ghana and Ivory Coast, with enough ineluctably African based human, cultural and material resources.
As the creative process has become African as much as it is/was Dutch, it would be quite the reach to claim that any significant long term exclusively African cultural history could be located in the patterns and colours of these ankara fabric. This gathering of fabric and symbols from across the world, taking root in Africa shows how dynamic and fluid culture can be. So the question arises—why is it something that we have become overly sentimental about? Why are we expecting that an industry founded on internationalism and multiculturalism would confine itself to one culture, in practice?
When we cry “This is ours and no one else’s, we not only belie history but we also insist that we live in a world of undynamic culture. In fact, I daresay, Hollywood stars do not owe any ‘African’ body anything because they are wearing African print. As innovative, dynamic and creative as the ankara fabric industry is, surely they will flourish in markets other than those of African countries and there is nothing wrong or disrespectful about that.
Still, I must add that I acknowledge that not all the fight against cultural appropriation with regards to fabric is unjustified as it appears there is a fair extent to which people wear African print because of how exotic it is or so they can be seen to partake in this ‘African’ trend. However, I wonder: how often is it just because of the true beauty of the fabric? How much is because of this commodification of ‘Africa’? And how separable are the two? In any case, I still find that the fabric and patterns in question (ankara) are too dynamic and multi-cultural to be hassled over in the name of cultural appropriation.
I must also say that a line should be drawn when it comes to textile that can actually be located in traditions of different African people such the adire and aso-oke of the Yoruba people, kente of the Ashanti people, bogolanfini of the Malian people etc. These textiles, unlike ankara fabric, can be firmly located in the traditions of particular peoples and so it would be disrespectful to erase the intellectual and creative property in such cases.
Therefore, not only is it counter-creative and factually incorrect, the misconception that ankara fabric is exclusively African allows and supports the regressive idea of a monolithic African culture. A look at history (as I have briefly shared) reveals that Vlisco prints and all other derivative prints and products are African in a way that is neither closed nor significant over any long-term period. Over a short-term/contemporary period? Yes. But long-term historical significance? I’ll say not yet.
Otherwise, it also appears to me that colourful fabric has now become a ready symbol for ‘Africa’ as a homogenous entity; as if to say “It does not matter where in Africa, if it has patterns and colours, it belongs to this one thing called Africa.” On most days, I am hardly bothered by this; Maybe because I cannot remain upset all the time or maybe because of the underlying celebration of diversity and abundance of culture which the patterns signify. I can’t help but cringe at the fact that here again is something for the single picture of ‘Africa’ to latch on to and leech till all chance for cultural nuance is compromised.