Recent upsurge in supporting Black-owned business companies has created interest and brought attention to fashion labels that deal with African prints. Majority of the brands, created by West African designers based in the United States and Britain, are transforming West African traditional textile designs into modern American silhouettes.

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Boxing Kitten, founded by Maya Lake, is often credited as one of the first to put ankara print on the American fashion radar.

Black people born and raised in America are the largest consumer, but recent events have brought in new buyers. And people should buy it, to support Black-owned businesses. However, there is a big difference between non-Black consumers who use their money to help Black artists and non-Black designers using African-associated prints to make money for themselves.

Referring to fashion houses like Stella McCartney, which received backlash for using ankara prints. Although it is possible that there is no such thing as an original concept, and artists pay tribute to the eras, places, communities, techniques and aesthetics that inspire them, this doesn’t mean one can disregard the people associated with making the cultures.

HISTORY ASSOCIATED WITH BATIK PRINT

With the significant exception of Kente cloth, most recognizable African prints today are based on Indonesian batiks. Identified as African wax block prints, or Dutch wax prints, Dutch merchants brought them to West Africa in the mid-1800s, after the Dutch attempted to mimic traditional batik fabrics through machine-made work, but noticed that their mechanized fabrics did not penetrate Indonesian market.

Vlisco, a Dutch fabric company established in the Netherlands in 1846, designed and manufactured cloth sold all over West Africa. This does not mean its evolution in West Africa can be overlooked. It’s disrespectful to simply wipe out the past of how West Africans came to own this cloth culturally, solely because the practice didn’t start there.

Its popularity evolved according to West African taste and became a part of their culture. Local community women passed it on with cultural significance. Some Ankara patterns are made up of symbols synonymous with Yoruba culture that women of past generations can understand.

WHEN IT IS APPROPRIATION ?

Black American people can relate to the fabric in a different way. It is not something to flaunt in a costume party, if someone doesn’t have a personal and cultural connection to the fabric. Appropriation is when ownership is redefined, refusing to consider smaller brands and those from African heritage who wear such prints and patterns on a daily basis.

INPUTS OF BLACK WOMEN

Yetunde Olukoya remarks it can be worn all over the world, as long as it’s made in Africa and brings interest back to the people who really made the trend famous.

Ms. Orji, of All Things Ankara blog, publishes photographs of non-Black models in ankara print. She says, for the prints to go viral; more people need to use them.

Ms. Elabor shares, any artist who makes African prints popular should be of African descent. If not, that would make it seem as though we needed to wait for another race to come and use it before the world would perceive it as famous.

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Ray Darten label by Ms. Olukoya, started with 160 pieces she sewed by hand, now employs more than 100 workers in Nigeria.

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Many designers see their African roots as a starting point from which something new can be introduced into the global fashion scene. Buki Ade founded Bfyne, a swimwear company known for its innovative use of straps, sleeves and prints drawn from her Nigerian heritage.

HERITAGE AND CONTEMPORIZATION

Ankara print clothing challenges myths that equate much of Africa with poverty and disease.

While African-born designers see African print as a way to spread their culture, they are selling it in a country that has its own separate history and relationship to these fabrics.

Most people of all races in America, grew up associating African print clothing with expressions of Black pride, based on its popularity during the civil rights era and its use in the Black Power movement as a means of expressing unity and relation to one’s African heritage. They see fashion not as a way of spreading African culture but as a way of reclaiming it.

African design aesthetic is such, that one can walk into a room without saying anything, but their clothing says it all. Patterns have been a way of communicating for centuries without saying a word, and it can be shocking for some to see these patterns worn out without regard to their original messages. Some prints used for skirts, halter dresses and jumpsuits have specific meaning in Nigeria or Ghana, implying that one is pregnant, newlywed or in mourning.

Few suggest that cultural innovation cannot be stopped. Scot Brown, an associate professor at U.C.L.A. and a historian of African-American social movements and popular culture, is not worried about whether ankara print will lose its significance for the African-American community if it goes mainstream.

He sees the innovative use of the print for Western business clothes as another sign that African fashion will constantly evolve and adapt to changing conditions. When something goes global, there will be further innovations developing. Expressions of Black pride will simply evolve and take up new forms. African fashion is vast and infinite, it will never run out of its creative energy.

MY CULTURE IS NOT A COSTUME

In 2011, the University of Denver and University of Ohio launched a campaign raising awareness around cultural appropriation through costume. The poster series, “We’re a Culture, not a Costume,” depicted different offensive outfits being worn by white individuals, next to students from those cultures or races. “You think it’s harmless, but you’re not the target”, “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life”, showcasing examples of appropriation and racism.

The difference between appreciation and appropriation is defining the latter as when certain aspects of a culture are cherry-picked as a trend, with no consideration given to their original significance or context.

Context is key, without knowledge of where a garment or outfit came from within a culture, wearing those pieces of clothing trivializes the history of an entire group of people.

Emi Ito talks about appropriation of Japanese culture, especially the kimono, in her Densho piece. How Japanese Americans were made to feel inferior and, in many cases, forced to assimilate. It is hurtful and renders the history of Japanese Americans invisible.

The industry and individuals must choose to learn how to prevent additional damage by starting to undertake further research. Seeking, studying and communicating with people we already know, about their cultural history – if, and only if, they are interested in having the conversation.

 

References:

https://www.matterprints.com/journal/guide/is-it-okay-to-wear-traditional-clothing-from-other-cultures/

https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/stella-mccartney-cultural-appropriation_n_59d62f70e4b0becae802b7d0

White Customers, Black Fabrics, by

 

Article by Nafeesah Ahmed

NIFT Bhubaneswar