“The wise man says during the day what the wax says at night." A proverb from Burkina Faso
Wax's roots were not originally sewn in Africa, however, our continent has succeeded over the years in harvesting its values and appropriating its culture. Indeed, wax has become an integral part of African heritage.
The history of wax textile is founded in a meeting between Europe and Africa, though its origins can be traced to even further afield - Indonesia.
History tells us that in 1799, the Netherlands possessed several colonies in Indonesia. Incessant revolts there pushed the Dutch to recruit and train mercenaries on the West coast of Africa where they already had commercial interests.
This is how the men of the Ashanti kingdom, located on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), left to fight in Borneo and Sumatra. They came back in 1836 with chests filled with wondrous Indonesian batiks.
These batiks were incredibly popular, as much with the aristocracy as with the Ashanti people. Batik fabrics, created using the Indonesian method of printing motifs using wax, would soon be worth their weight in gold in West Africa, notably in the Gold Coast.
African wax is therefore the issue of several cultures and production methods. On one side there's Indonesia, with its batiks and elaborate motifs, and on the other there's Africa, which has added its own touches to the tradition with fabrics such as "bogolan" (or mud cloth) and "kente," which are still sources of inspiration today.
However, wax is not only a piece of fabric or an item of clothing. An African mother always has a wax at hand to be used as a baby carrier or a blanket, which means that the fabric has massive emotional significance and can be extremely evocative for both young and old.
Wax is also a means of cultural expression, uniting customs, beliefs and traditions. A newly married couple receives a wax as a foundation for their lives together, for instance. Indeed, it is a vital element of the ceremonies, which bind communities together through generations, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Some prints are even commissioned specifically for a particular event. It's not unusual to see a new wax created for the birthday of a head of state or to celebrate Independence Day or Mother's Day.
And the symbolism of wax does not stop there. The way in which it is worn speaks volumes about the wearer.
We say that a woman can be recognised by how her wax is tied.
In some African counties, a woman will wear two waxes over each other if she has bestowed her affections on someone, whereas a single woman will wear one wax tied at her waist. Meanwhile, to have a torn wax is a sign of misfortune, or even psychological issues.
Colours and prints are also loaded with meaning. White, for instance, is a sign of peace; blue of power; yellow of fertility, and red of honesty.
When it comes to motifs, they also have tales to tell. Find out more in our " signature " section.