Image Factories

By Max Allen

The African cloth usually found in museums is made by hand, one piece at a time. The cloth in this exhibition is different - it was mass-produced for a mass market. The designers and printers are anonymous and sometimes, even the factories are not identified. What this cloth does share with its traditional hand-woven cousins is the fact that it is part of a cultural communication system; it can be "read" by people who speak its language. This exhibition is about that language and its expressions over the past 30 years.


Imagine your clothing conveyed a message as bold as a newspaper headline. If your husband was behaving particularly well and you wanted everybody to know, you might wear an abstract pattern widely recognized as "Capable Husband." Or if you wanted to lionize a politician, you might wear his portrait on your dress. Messages like these and countless others - commemorating special people and events, or articulating proverbs, ideas and slogans - are found on the "mobile billboards" of stylish African clothing.

A cloth from Ghana shows groves of trees alternating with a single tree, which has broken off at ground level and fallen. This cloth reflects President Kwame Nkrumah's campaign to reinforce political unity in Ghana. The proverb written in the Twi language on the cloth reads "Dua kur gye enum a obu," and means: "A tree alone cannot withstand a storm." In other words, there is strength in unity; united we stand, divided we fall. The implication is that individualism does not pay.

Another cloth, acquired in northern Tanzania in 1976, shows a Pepsi logo and the words "Pepsi-Cola" floating over a background of bubbles. The Kiswahili proverb on the cloth, "Tamu haina mfano wake," means "sweetness has no comparison," and suggests that nothing tastes better than Pepsi. Textiles such as this were produced by companies or political parties as advertisements and given away to women to wear; in this case, to promote the launch of the carbonated drink, Pepsi-Cola.

The idea of printing mottos on textiles that are worn as wrapped skirts, originated at the beginning of the 20th century with the Kenyan trader, Hajee Essak Abdullah Kaderdina. His textiles, which carried the trademark "K.H.E. - Mali ya Abdullah," quickly created a new fashion. In the Textile Museum of Canada's fibrespace gallery there is a modern version of one of his designs. It was printed by the Rivatex company in Kenya and includes the proverb "Halina thamani pendo la fukara," which means, "don't put a price on a poor person's life."

Precedents and parallels

In textile markets throughout Africa you can find patterns that reflect a long history of international trade. In the 19th century, soldiers returning to Africa after serving in Indonesia (with the Dutch colonial army) brought back a taste for batik cloths made in Java. Batik was especially admired because the crackle lines enlivened the pattern with something resembling" visual static."European powers saw a marketing opportunity and had their textile printing factories (in England, France and Holland) begin producing cloth with images based on Indonesian batik.

This batik-influenced cloth, with its apparent "accidental irregularities" reminiscent of its handmade predecessors, is still popular today. In this exhibition there is a dress made from "African" cloth and printed by the Holland-based transnational firm, Vlisco. The dress is typical of garments sewn by tailors who set up shop near African outdoor textile markets, custom-making shirts or dresses from newly purchased yardage. This Vlisco cloth has images borrowed from Indonesian batik, including "trees of life" and royaldodot "fishbone" patterns.

Another Vlisco textile shows the wings of the great eagle and messenger of the gods, Garuda, together with the roof of a temple, which appears as part of the traditional Javanese "fertile mountain" pattern. These are two examples of ancient Indonesian imagery, interpreted by the Dutch, and marketed to Africans.

Examples of old English and French printed textiles with themes such as instruction, commemoration and celebration, echo throughout this exhibition. A 19th-century English cloth has educational mottos; another commemorates the English prime minister, William Gladstone; and a third celebrates the "Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations,"which promoted free trade and was held in London's Crystal Palace in 1851.

Within Africa as well, there are visual precedents and parallels for symbolic factory-printed designs, especially those that honour prominent figures. The deep blue, hand-made adire cloths of Nigeria, worn by women as dress-wrappers, sometimes show stencilled images celebrating the accession to power of a new leader. For example, an adire in this exhibition features Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's head of state (1966-1975) in the pose of an Oba, the traditional ruler of the Yoruba people.

In Ghana, deep red is the colour of mourning and hand-made adinkra cloth - covered with symbolic stamped patterns - is worn at funerals. Literally, adinkra means goodbye. This exhibition includes yardage that resembles adinkra cloth, but it was not hand made; instead, it was factory-printed for the funeral of Nana Juaben Serwaa II, who lived from 1912 to 1999. She was one of the politically powerful Queen Mothers in the court of the Asante king. On the cloth are royal symbols together with an adinkrasymbol called gye nyame, which means, "Except for God I fear none." The cloth was designed and copyrighted by the Queen Mothers, and although it was mass-produced, only the Queen Mothers sold the cloth and only outside the Manhyia Palace.


In 1977, a Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture was held in Lagos, Nigeria. Yardage printed in England for the event is a veritable compendium of African history. In the field are copper-alloy torques that the Yoruba used as neck-rings, alternating with Benin bronze female heads. (The Benin was a militarily powerful and artistically sophisticated nation centred in the west of Nigeria before the colonial era. Royal Benin art was extensively looted by the British imperial army.) In the border of this cloth are: six-pointed stars (Yoruba and Ibo Christians see themselves as the Jews of Africa) together with kola nuts, which are offered to visitors as a gesture of hospitality; the golden stool, which has been in the possession of Asante kings for more than three centuries, and; images of a royal sceptre. This "Sword of Kingship" image, based on a wrought-iron sword captured by the British from the Asante nation, was subsequently acquired by the British Museum in 1896. The Sword of Kingship pattern has been traced to cloth produced in England in 1904, and made for the African market. This was a remarkable example of imperial bravado - marketing images of a stolen cultural symbol back to the people from whom it was taken.


Women are usually in charge of marketing cloth in Africa, and a wealthy market woman in some countries is called a "Mama Benz," because she may well drive a Mercedes Benz. Yardage is available only in specific pre-cut lengths, rather than rolled off a bolt (at any length you want) the way you might buy yardage in Toronto. Since African cloth is always used as clothing, the specific lengths correspond to the amounts required to make the item, whether it be a wrapped skirt or a skirt-overskirt-blouse combination.

The popularity of various patterns and colour combinations comes and goes. The factories do not name the patterns, but popular patterns gradually acquire nicknames in the market such as "Children Are Better than Money," or, "If You Go, I Go," or "Men Are Not Like Ears of Corn." Unpopular designs remain nameless while popular designs can remain so for decades.

In addition to yardage made for sale in the markets, others are produced for commercial companies, or commissioned by political leaders to give away as advertising and propaganda. When a foreign dignitary - such as the Queen, the Pope, or the President-for-Life of a friendly country - is escorted from the airport, the route might be lined with people wearing cloth commemorating the visit.

Advertising Despots

An unnerving aspect of any survey of African printed cloth is the number of unsavoury characters on display. Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, among others, practiced a corrupt and murderous brand of politics. Why would anybody wear clothing celebrating them, and why were they "successful" as political leaders?

Some political constituencies can be bought, violently intimidated into submission or simply persuaded. Idi Amin's strongest supporters were members of his own ethnic group and, he took care of his friends. Mobutu Sese Seko used his vast, ill-gotten wealth to buy popularity, and his anti-Westernization campaign initially generated great enthusiasm. These leaders, and others such as Hastings Kamuzu Banda and Gnassingbe Eyadema, rose to power after decolonization in countries whose infrastructures were physically and socially broken. In the words of the Africana encyclopedia, "The anxieties - and the brittle repression - of the African rulers of newly-independent nations reflected as much their appreciation and fear of the diverse movements they had ridden to power as their inability to confront the divisions in society that colonial regimes had encouraged."

Colonialism Today

As African nations began to dig themselves out of the catastrophe of European colonial rule, another catastrophe took shape; this one engineered by international monetary institutions largely controlled by the United States. These institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, devised a series of fiscal programs apparently designed to help African economies, but whose primary effect appears to have been most beneficial to transnational capital. "In the 1970s, African communities entered a new phase of economic and social misery," writes Professor Leslie Rabine. "The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund responded by lending massive amounts of money to the very neo-colonialist governments whose officials were involved in looting the national economies in the first place. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when foreign debt became unmanageable, and as public revenues dried up and poverty deepened, the World Bank and the IMF imposed 'structural adjustment programs' on African nations. These programs dismantled state economic controls on basic necessities and social programs for health, education, housing and sanitation, in favour of neo-liberal market-reform strategies and austerity measures."

One of the market reform strategies was to encourage production for export and lower trade barriers - in other words, globalization. As sensible as this idea may be in some contexts, in practice it is ruining the African textile industry. Huge companies are in serious trouble or have already shut down. La Cotonnière Industrielle du Cameroun (producer of 35 million metres of printed cloth a year) in Cameroun, and African Textile Mill in Uganda were collapsing. The largest producer of all, Rivatex in Kenya, which at one time produced 20,000 metres of kanga cloth each day, is in receivership. Furthermore, a World Trade Organization production and tariff agreement expires in 2004, and millions of workers around the world will be displaced as even more production shifts to countries such as China and India. Without a doubt, "African" cloth will continue to be produced - the question is, where?


In Africa, as elsewhere, a woman's personal collection of printed cloth has two kinds of value: monetary and "inalienable" - that is, a value that cannot be expressed in monetary terms. The inalienable value, involving history and sentiment, is priceless. Of course, old wax prints in particular hold their monetary value as well. They can be worn and washed repeatedly without fading. They make worthy bequests to children and grandchildren. They also hold personal memories of better times, and are rarely displayed as collections to strangers, the way others might display a collection of paintings or fine china.

Remarkably, in all of Africa, there are no public collections of printed cloth. The collection displayed in this exhibition is one of only a handful in North America. Much of it was acquired by Barbara Barde, a television documentary maker and one of the founders of WTN (Women's Television Network), and Vicki Henry, then an African craft specialist and now, director of the Canada Council Art Bank. Both were interested in communication systems when they were in Africa, and both were struck by the stories told by cloth.

African cloth depicts a microcosm of recent African history. Like the news, popular patterns and subjects turn over quickly; cloths present stories with crackle and sparkle, in electric colours, and often on an enormous scale you can read from a block away.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada