African Commemorative Cloth: A Series

This English made Liberian print was made for President Tolbert’s 1968 campaign.

Welcome to my collection of commemorative African printed textiles. I’m using the French term ‘Pagne‘ as sometimes they are called “Pagnes commeratifs”. Coming from Portuguese, pagne really describes the cut of cloth not the patterns or content. It has come to be one of several terms used to denote these brightly colored, intricately designed, and socially significant cotton fabrics produced and worldwide, and especially throughout tropical Africa. In West Africa, these tend to be “Fancy” (i.e. cheaper, one sided) mass produced “roller” prints on cotton. Also known as Wax prints (like the more expensive double sided Waxes, by companies like Vlisco), and occasionally as “Batiks” (which they are not), the names come from the production process. Batiks use hand painted wax to mask off areas from dye. Most roller prints use resins to achieve this effect, but retain the vein like “crinkles” characteristic of hand printed fabrics with wax fixer, a technique also known as starch resist or wax resist. Machine made, they feature repeating patterns rolled onto a long cotton cloth, usually 46 or 47 inches wide. The forms and design traditions are ubiquitous in West Africa. The slightly different “khanga” form of similar cotton fabrics is popular in East Africa and points south.

 

Made by CICAM in 1981, commemorating the January 1981 state visit of Nigerian President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari to Cameroon.  It features the twin portraits of Cameroonian President Ahmadou Ahidjo and President Shagari.

Made by CICAM in 1981, commemorating the January 1981 state visit of Nigerian President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari to Cameroon. It features the twin portraits of Cameroonian President Ahmadou Ahidjo and President Shagari.

While tradition of West African wax printed fabric goes back to early European imperialism, the first records of mass-produced memorial portrait cloths and political portraits are from 1920s Accra and coastal Ghana. Ghana, Nigeria and most of West Africa, has a long history of textiles featuring printed, painted, and woven figurative designs. The long history and incredible diversity of West African textile industries included commemorative cloth in various forms, and imperial trade latched onto this ready market. Domestic and European Wax prints were inspired by cloth printed abroad, based to some extent on Dutch traded 18th century Indonesian Batiks that became popular in coastal Africa. They exploded post independence, with companies and governments making them, as well as the more common and prized decorative Wax prints, Fancy Waxes, Vertiable Waxes, Dutch Waxes, English Waxes, Javas, etc.

At independence many nations nationalized or built domestic fabric production to meet local demand that had once been supplied by manufactures in Holland, England, or Belgium. Most every independent nation had at least one such company, often competing and developing unique style variations and traditions. Today many of these proud factories are going out of business as cheaper production in India and China move in, aided by the ability of locals to easily and quickly send design specs over the Internet, and see finished prints shipped quickly from Asia.

 

Africa Dance Fest @ BAM

A pagne from the 2009 Obama visit to Ghana, with Atta Mills, His “first Lady” Naarou Mills, President Obama, And Michelle Obama.  ”Fancy” single sided.

Women use 6 yards (depending on tradition) as a “wrap” dress, but also dresses, shirts, and suits for men and women are made from these. The term pagne refers to any cotton cloth cut in this form. If not used as a wrapper, these cloths are tailored into a dizzying range of clothes, from dresses, suits and shirts. One often sees tables, reviewing stands, or press conference backdrops hung with huge drapes of specially printed political prints.

I collect “Commemorative Cloths”, which might very roughly be the West African equivalent of the political or commemorative t-shirt. People and organizations get them made for many big events, but they are especially seen around elections, and are pretty iconic of African politics. Today political t-shirts and other ephemera are becoming as ubiquitous as printed fabric, and even the pagnes are now more likely produced in China on huge computerized inkjet printers that can make photographic quality images. But the traditions of “fancy” pagnes live on.

The heyday of the neo-colonial rulers in the 1970s, such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko or Bokassa in the CAR, are often associated with the political wax prints, though democratic politicians still use them today. Most every political campaign, development program, church celebration, royal anniversary, or holiday will see special pagnes printed up. Some are beautiful and valued for generations, bought at market stalls. Others are cheap and tacky, given away to crowds to gin up political support. I think all of them are fascinating: they tell stories of how people and movements want to be viewed, as well as the aesthetics, colors, and designs valued by regular citizens.

In the West, commemorative fabrics are sometimes treated as kitsch and sometimes treated as “art”. A handful of gallery exhibitions have taken place in the United States, Canada, and Holland, with the most recent being the Tropenmuseum’s 2010 “Long Live the President! Portrait-Cloths from Africa”. The Tropenmuseum’s exhibit drew from a number of sources, but most prominently from the collection of French photographer Bernard Collet. Collet, a successful journalistic and art photographer, has also made a name for himself with his large and unique collection, focused on the leaders former French colonial Africa, especially those whose out-sized egos projected overblown images. Images which betrayed their complicity in French neo-colonial control over their own nations. This iconography of 70s “Francafrique” — and the visual language used by nobler African leaders before and since, helps turn many of these objects into a window on African political history. Outside of formal politics, the use of commemorative textiles for all sorts of holidays, organizations, advertisements, and community events makes these tangible records of unique nations, cities, and societies at unique times.

Below are photos of some of my collection, and links to learn more about these unique traditions. I love them not just because of their colors or designs, or because of the history they bring to life, but also because they represent a true multicultural tradition, by which African communities mixed, chose, and formed objects drawing on Asian and European traditions, creating something unique, practical, and beautiful.

Periodically I will put up a new cloth, and talk a little about the history and iconography of it. Corrections from you are most desired, and I would love to hear from others who collect or live with such cloths.

 

 

 

Learn more:

Below are articles, resources, and a few links to shops focusing on African printed fabrics, especially commemorative and political cloths. I am always interested in learning more, so please share any resources your recommend.

And despite my spouse’s objections, I am always looking to buy new or old political commemorative prints from West and Central Africa. Feel free to contact me using the form on the “About” page of this website.

You can also see my Pinterest Gallery of Commemorative cloths

Exhibitions

Long Live the President! Portrait-Cloths from Africa. Exhibit 2010, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.

In Praise of Heroes: Contemporary African Commemorative Cloth: an Exhibition at the Newark Museum, September 14, 1982-February 27, 1983. Objects in the Newark Museum Collection and a 1983 anew article on the exhibit.

Image Factories: African Cloth about Culture and Politics. Textile Museum of Canada Jul 7, 2004 – Sep 5, 2004

Images of Commemorative Fabrics from Africa from the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center.

Bernard Collet collection

Article on Bernard Collet: “Chasseur de têtes” by Justine Spiegel. Jeune Afrique 1 October 2011

Bernard Collet collections at “le petit musee de la francafrique”

Bernard Collet collections: Political Cloths – a set on Flickr;

Writing

Axelsson, Linn. Making Borders: Engaging the threat of Chinese textiles in Ghana. Diss. Stockholm, 2012.

Akinwumi, Tunde M. and Elisha P. Renne. “Commemorative Textiles and Anglican Church History in Ondo, Nigeria.” Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 6 (July 2008): 126–144.

Akinwumi, Tunde M. “The “African Print” Hoax: Machine Produced Textiles Jeopardize African Print Authenticity.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.2, no.5, July 2008

Bickford, Kathleen. “The A.B.C.’s of cloth and politics in Cote d’Ivoire.” Africa Today 41 (1994): 5–24.

Domowitz, Susan. “Wearing proverbs: Anyi names for printed factory cloth.” african arts 25.3 (1992): 82-87

Eicher, Joanne B. African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance. Ed. D. Soyini Madison. A&C Black, 2013.

Faber, Paul. Long Live the President! Portrait-Cloths from Africa. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2010

Kankili, Salomon. Cameroun. Pagne du 8 mars: Mafia gouvernementale autour du logo officiel. March 2012.

Kroese, W. T. The origin of the wax block prints on the coast of West Africa. Smit, 1976.

Madison, D. Soyini. “Dressing Out-of-Place: From Ghana to Obama Commemorative Cloth on the USAmerican Red Carpet.” African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance (2013): 217.

Nielsen, Ruth T. The history and development of wax-printed textiles intended for West Africa and Zaire. Master’s thesis, 1974.

Nielsen, Ruth T. ” The History and Development of Wax-Printed Textiles Intended for West Africa and Zaire.” in J. M. Cordwell and R. A. Schwarz (eds.) The Fabrics of Culture. The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. The Hague-Paris-New York Mouton. 1979. 467–498.

Spencer, Anne M. In Praise of Heroes: Contemporary African Commemorative Cloth : an Exhibition at the Newark Museum, September 14, 1982-February 27, 1983. Newark Museum, 1982.

Stander, Loraine. The politics behind the ” fakeness” of textiles in Togo. How We Made It In Africa (28 November 2011)

Steiner, Christopher B. Another Image of Africa: Toward an Ethnohistory of European Cloth Marketed in West Africa, 1873-1960. Ethnohistory, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring, 1985), pp. 91-110 Duke University Press.

Sylvanus, Nina. “The fabric of Africanity.” Anthropological Theory 7 (June 2007): 201–216.

Sylvanus, Nina. “L’habilite? entrepreneuriale des Nana Benz du Togo.” Africultures (February 2007).

Willard, Michelle. Re-Representing Authenticity through Factory-Printed Cloths of Africa. Master’s thesis, University of British Columbia, MA Program Anthropology, 2005.

Willard, Michelle. “History of Research on African Factory-Printed Cloth and Current Approaches in the Field.” Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, (2004). http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/447/

Other links

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African Commemorative Cloth: A Series by Tommy Miles, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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