Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints

This exhibition is a tribute to the century-old handmade designs and patterns on textiles that originated in Indonesia and were copied and industrialized by Europeans and exported to Africa. Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints traces the developmental pathway of the African wax print and tells how these fabrics reflect the stories, dreams, and personalities of the people who wear them.

Batik is a Javanese word that refers to a traditional technique of wax-resist dyeing, in which a pattern is made on both sides of cotton fabric with warm liquid wax applied by a tjanting, a small brass cup with a spout. After the wax cools and solidifies, the cloth is dyed with a primary color and the wax is then removed, revealing the pattern where the wax had once been.

The success of the wax prints in Africa is driven by many factors, such as the culture, taste, and desires of African consumers. Clothing in Africa serves an important means of communication, sending secret messages and retelling local proverbs. Clothing also depicts a person’s social status and position, political convictions, ambition, marital status, ethnicity, age, sex, and group affiliations. The names and stories associated with the fabrics differ from country to country and region to region. One fabric may have different names in different countries, depending on the symbolism that the consumer can read in the fabric.

The history of the African wax print is a history paved along colonial trade routes and globalization in the post- colonial era. Though not originally African, these textiles have become ingrained in African culture and society, and loved and identified as their own.

The exhibition Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints is curated by Dr. Gifty Benson and organized by ExhibitsUSA/Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO.

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