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.
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.
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.
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
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
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;
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/
- History of African Batik
- African Wax Print Fabric The Craft Begins
- The Modern Tale of Nigerian Wax-Resist Textiles
- El Watan :: 8 septembre 2005 :: ‘Du pagne teint au boubou imprime’ /Intitulee Du pagne teint au boubou imprime, cette exposition raconte l’epopee de l’industrie alsacienne et l’histoire de l’Afrique occidentale, et ce, racontees par des textiles images de 1950 a 2000.
- African Presidents on Fabric – Fly
- The Story Behind African Wax Print Cloth Â· Wren
- BBC NEWS : African khanga under threat
- Kanga history
- Yinka Shonibare MBE, Exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, November 10, 2009 – March 7, 2010
- “SHOPPER’S WORLD – Zambia’s Social Fabric” NYTimes.comdiscussing Kafue Textiles, late 60s
- Fabric Of A Nation: Ghanaian Wax Prints At The British Museum | Culture24
- Anali’s First Amendment: Limited Quantity – Obama Fabric For Sale
- ALL MY EYES: African Portrait Cloth
- greg.org: the making of: The Togs Must Be Crazy
- ShopCurious – Lola Faturoti – Obama commemorative “boubou” dress
- African Digital Art: Pushing Digital Boundaries
- Canadian Victorian & Edwardian Flags
- Tanzania Welcomes Bush, but Obama Is Topic No. 1 on the Streets – NYTimes.com
- –Obama Dress– headlines Lola Faturoti–s new collection | Bella Naija
- Black Threads: President Bush Fabric – Yes, Really!
- Wholesale African Fabrics AKN Fabrics
- Obama souvenir cloth goes on sale | General News 2009-06-18
- Blue Kente God Is Good Wax Print Fabric – African Print – African Fabrics – Africa Imports
- Letters & Riddles Lime Wax Print Fabric – African Print – African Fabrics – Africa Imports
- Portrait Of Grace Wax Print Fabric – African Print – African Fabrics – Africa Imports
- Centre Ville :: Journee mondiale de l’enseignant : Quand le pagne s’en mele. le pagne fait la fete a Cameroun.
- Afrique: 50 ans d’independance / Blog Archive / Nana-Benz Petite histoire des ‘Nana-Benz’: Comment l’independance a enrichi des femmes.
- Ladyz :: 8 Mars 2010 : Par ici le pagne.
- Femmes solidaires ? – Le blog de femmesenmouvement.over-blog.com
- Best African fabrics, Harlem Mud cloth , Cotton African fabrics, wholesale quilting fabrics silks, Kente cloth, Batik, Woven, Lace, Yara African Fabrics
- Karibu sana to Tanzania Simmering Senegal African Environment Day Khanga “iconic images of Africa within the continent’s borders encircled by African Environment Day in Swahili.”
- Miss Kelly : Where Can I Get a Kanga Like That? Crazy rightwing person wants GW Bust Khangas. So do I.
- Ananse Village –Fibercopia
- futbol – apliiq
- Real Wax Print, African Cloth – China Real Wax Print, Print, Print Cloth in Cotton
- Trade in Africa: Dutch, China in –Africa Wax– war | Ghana Business News“For the price of a yard of Vlisco, you can buy eight to 10 copies,” Ed Hessing, the company’s sales manager, told AFP. “The competition from China: is it a threat?”
- African Wax Print Cloth from ATL GHANA
- Mielie Peeps – The Politics of Wax Print FabricIncludes a great 70s/80s West Africa Nelson Mandela
- Vlisco History since 1846
- Election goods (real wax fabric) – Election goods (real wax fabric) (),real wax from Speed Industrial Co., Limited.
- Fabric, The Chase | Revealing HistoriesThe textile firm of Paterson Zochonis was established as a trading company in Sierra Leone in 1879, building on west Africa’s established trading links with Europe after slavery had been abolished. It opened its headquarters in Manchester in 1886, and by the 1930s had branches in Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Gold Coast (Ghana). The key to its success was a good knowledge of west African markets, a network of trading contacts and the quality of its goods.
- BBC – Africa Beyond – News – The Fabric of a Nation: textiles and identity in modern Ghana
Former President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings, and the Queen, on a wax-printed cloth in The Fabric of a Nation: Textiles and Identity in Modern Ghana, exhibition at the British Museum
- Undressing ethnicity – Yinka Shonibare – page 4 | African Arts
- Ananse Village
- True Up / Archive / Obama Commemorative Fabric
- Abidjan.net Actualites | Demarrage de la Fete de la liberte en Cote d’Ivoire le president Pascal Affi N’guessan
- La crise en Cote d’Ivoire : Marc Le Pape – Claudine Vidal – La Documentation francaise
avec une Ivoirienne portant une robe a l’effigie du President Houphouet-Boigny (1965)
- photo : WAX SPIRIT de Jacques Bosser – Lyon Web agenda
- I tessuti parlano … – BrikebrokPanges from Fespaco, International Women’s day, EU
- Yara African Fabrics : Malian-American textile emporium in the heart of Harlem, NYC.
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.