Very often, Africans are depicted on old pictures as naked people, walking around without any clothing. This seems to be quite at odd with the fact that the Dutch textile company VLISCO has been installed in Africa, more precisely in Togo, since 1846. So how could pictures from the 1800s and early 1900s only show naked Africans? The BBC recently ran a story on VLISCO and African textile tradition actually being European. The New York Times claimed that Africa’s fabric was entirely Dutch. I find this quite appalling, and I call this a falsification of history.
For starters, before VLISCO, Africa had a very rich textile industry as noted by Kankan Moussa‘s entire delegation being clothed from cotton woven with golden threads in 1300s during his pilgrimage to the Mecca (this will be a story for another day), or the Kanembu clothing tradition which dates as far back as the 800s. It is misleading to believe that the Wax hollandais is the only fabric worn by Africans, when we know that the Bogolan rises from a long tradition of weavers in Mali, or the Kente cloth of Ghana.
So what is the history of African fabric? Is there an African history of textile?
As pointed earlier, the African fabric industry is very old, and dates as far back as 5,000BC when ancient Egyptians began cultivating flax and weaving it into linen. An ancient pottery found at Badari shows an ancient depiction of a loom dating back to this period, while a 12th dynasty image from the tomb of Khnumhotep shows weavers using a horizontal loom (ca 2400 BC). Moreover, pyramids, sculptures, and hieroglyphs clearly show all Egyptians clothed.Even their neighbors to the south, the Nubians, had a flourishing textile industry, as can be seen on images on pyramids at Meroë, and images of the great queen Amanishakheto, as well as those of pharaoh Piye.Later on, as several civilizations flourished throughout Africa, cotton became a more commonly used fabric. The explorer Ibn Battuta does mention the presence of weavers in the Mali empire, and in Timbuktu, in the 1300s. As Islam was introduced in West Africa, many began wearing today’s version of the boubou.
Today, one can find a full tradition of textile flourishing throughout Africa. The Bogolan or ‘mud cloth’ is hand-woven fabric hailing from Mali. Kente cloth, is Ghana’s national fabric, with the most expensive ones made with golden threads for kings only (in the olden days). It is said that the British explorers were amazed by the beauty of the Ashanti king’s attire. Cameroon has a long history of cloth made from the bark of trees, with some fabric particularly made from the obom. Fibers from the raffia are still commonly used to make bags, and clothing. Moreover, in West Cameroon, Kings are dressed with finely woven clothing made by the best weavers of the kingdom embellished with beads. The Pygmies use bark cloth made from tropical fig trees, while people from Chad and the Central African Republic weave cotton strips on horizontal looms; they use a variety of natural dyes.
So why are the New York Times and the BBC trying to falsify history?Even VLISCO patterns are not Europeans, as they are inspired by Africans, and made to address the needs of the African population. Yes, Africans wear have worn VLISCO textiles and many Nana Benz have prospered from it, but that doesn’t mean that they do not have their own rich tradition of textile. Africans have their textile industry which dates back millennia, and has probably inspired many in the world. So today as you wear a wax hollandais, remember that there are Kente cloth, Bogolan, and many other beautiful garments made by local artists well-deserving of praise.I am leaving you with a documentary video on Kente cloth weaving. Enjoy!
The Obom, in Fang-Beti (Cameroon) language, means tissue of the bark of the Aloa tree. The bark of the “aloa” tree – a widespread tree in the equatorial forest, particularly originating from Cameroon my home country, – was used in former times for the manufacture of loincloths. The Aloa tree has a fibery bark, and is a soft white wood; it grows quite fast, and once at maturity, its flowers drop seeds which grow around the tree. This natural fibre is obtained in Cameroon in traditional ways. The bark layers which have a thickness of 1 to 2 mm, are treated as intact sheets with water steam and are subsequently softened by beating. The full description on how the Obom is extracted can be read in full from the webpage of Etolo Eyah, a Cameroonian artist master of Obom.
The originality, beauty, and genuineness of the obom bark in combination with modern fabric and leather confers to any creations a touch of exclusivity, in a very ‘green’ manner, leading to sustainable development and handicraft.
The obom enjoys the reputation of being a material of great value and is therefore often also used as canvas for paintings, in witness of the riches of their owners; there are several Cameroonian painters who particularly use the Obom as canvas. This natural fibre can be machine washable and ironed. The use of the obom bark in modern couture is unique. I can testify of this because I have a hat made up of Obom which I have had for over 12 years! Please check out the websites of several stylists and painters, such as Martial Tapolo, Cornelia Orsucci, Peter Musa, Otheo, and Arlette Dorothee Efang, to name just a few. The video below just shows the processus of harvesting and cleaning the tree bark; the bark shown is not obom!