Colonial Cloth or Cosmopolitan Creativity?

Did you know that Holland’s most famous export product in Africa is fashion? Although the average Beninese earns two dollars a day, many buy quality tissues of Wax hollandaise for as much as fifteen euros per meter. At the end of the 19th century, Dutch merchants industrialized these age-old Javanese patterns, known there as batik. Bypassing merchants and returning mercenaries allegedly brought the designs to West-Africa. The sole remaining Dutch wax producer Vlisco is nowadays a market leader in the region, selling 225 million euro worth of textile in 2011. But does that make the fabric part of African culture, and is its cultural and economic impact justified?

By Victor Kuijpens

Vlisco supports its strong position with massive marketing through king-size billboards, omnipresent online ads and popular social media campaigns. It presents its products as luxury and truly African. The latter assumption has however been criticized as a neo-colonial takeover of the African identity. A Nigerian scholar wrote that the collective term African print was a hoax, pleading instead for irregular designs implementing truly African themes. While the article in question put it quite crudely, there is some merit in discussing the Dutch wax dominance with regard to dependency theory.

Dependency theory assumes that post-colonial countries remain marginalized by producing low-value resources and importing high-value products, enabled by the imposition of a global hegemonic culture. As Vlisco’s designing, top quality production and marketing takes place in its Helmond headquarters, it adds considerably more value than the low-cost production in its African factories. And that added value ends up with its owner Actis, a spinoff from the British Commonwealth Development Corporation. While Actis has been voted African Private Equity Firm of the Year, it has also been criticized for using its public sector roots to make large profits. On the other hand, Vlisco does involve more and more African designers, transfers knowledge to its local factories and thus stimulates creativity and employment.

When addressing the cultural hegemony aspect, Dutch wax is of course not of African origin. But is it still Dutch or Indonesian? I consider it to be a rather complex product of centuries of creativity, trendsetting and blatant copying. While Vlisco vehemently defends its intellectual property from Asian copycats, it would be fair to recognize that it also benefited from the designs of others. Does that international copying process make the tissues less African? Anthropologist Nina Sylvanus points rightly out that it would be rather neo-colonial to claim that a product cannot be African if it is modern and cosmopolitan. That leads me to agree with Vlisco’s counterargument that it is the consumers rational decision to determine what is theirs and what is African.

We have to get out of the logic that any profit driven activity in the Third World is bad. However, business should be equitable and give Africans the chance not just to produce the resources for trifles, but to innovate and enterprise themselves. Likewise, western culture stands a lot to gain from African culture. Therefore, I will do my best to introduce some Javanese-African-Dutch colour in our daily wear. For the hobbyists, here’s a basic how-to to design your own wax: For those who don’t want to mess with hot wax and permanent dye, you can visit the Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design exhibition in Arnhem till the 6th of May, or admire my new African suit in the Noorderplantsoen in Groningen…

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