Showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the last half of 2016 in a ‘Creative Africa’ exposition is a room full of the patterns created by Vlisco, a Dutch factory founded in 1846.
The history of this (Wax Hollandais or Dutch Wax) cotton fabric whose patterns are made – like batik – with the use of wax is one of a world globalized and interconnected for hundreds of years.
In the late 19th century, the company began to export its roller-printed wax cloths to what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) which has a long tradition of labour-intensive batik. These cloths became popular with Ghanaian soldiers serving in the Dutch army in the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth century and were subsequently exported from Holland to the West African coast.
The popularity of this cotton fabric (110 stores in west and central Africa and one in the Netherlands), whose patterns draw from an aesthetic from far and wide in the world and whose pattern-building involves almost 30 separate processes, continues unabated. Why no stores exist in east Africa is a mystery to me.