Fabric Of A Nation: Ghanaian Wax Prints At The British Museum

| 01 March 2007
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photo shows wax print in blue and red with highlife written in the middle

This 'Highlife' fabric - the radiating lines perhaps suggesting sound emerging from a radio. Courtesy of the British Museum.

It's fifty years since Ghana achieved independence - a moment of great hope in Africa. The British Museum is marking the occasion with a display of wax fabrics tucked inside its front door. Kate Smith discovers just how many things a piece of material can say.

Well, here we are in a beautiful African-style material shop. One of the few material shops in London to still resist the global market in cheap clothes. A shop that makes it worthwhile to sew your own, because you won't find these bold vibrant patterns - snails, radio waves, birds - in red, orange, blue, green - anywhere on the high street.

And whether you want a shirt or skirt in a modern cut, or to swathe yourself with flowing fabric and headscarf in traditional African dress - there are dozens of designs to suit you.

You twitch one of the hanging cardboard labels to get an idea of the price - eight quid a metre? No: instead what you've got in your hand is a curatorial disquisition, giving the style and meaning of your coveted fabric. Because we're not in Brixton now, but in the British Museum looking at Fabric Of A Nation: Textiles And Identity In Modern Ghana.

photo shows patterned cotton fabric

This ‘Highlife’ design refers to the famous style of music that originated in Ghana and was enjoyed throughout Africa in celebrations of independence and musical creativity. Courtesy of the British Museum.

This flamboyant show is delightfully at odds with the Greek and Assyrian statuary that fills much of the British Museum's ground floor. As in a material shop you are allowed to touch - but most of my fellow visitors are just looking rather carefully. First imported from Indonesia in the mid 19th century, wax fabrics really took off in 1893 when a a Scottish trader, Ebenezer Brown Fleming, brought batik-inspired wax prints produced in Holland to the Dutch Indies. The product became popular on the Gold Coast, and spread over West Africa into Central Africa.

Now, these fabrics confer high social status, and are widely used in Ghana. All the fabrics 'speak' in some way. Some which are only pattered tell a story that - like the Victorian 'language of flowers' - you might only decode if you already know it.

photo shows pattern with wheelchair on green and yellow background

Fancy print cotton cloth commissioned by the Society of the Physically Disabled to highlight the needs of physically disabled people and to promote issues associated with disability. The motto of the society reads: ‘Together we stand’. Courtesy of the British Museum.

A blue snail pattern indicates "Wa fa me kwa ngwa" - you treat me like a snail. Another troubled, dotted pattern announces "Medee mese abo adwe ma kwasea bi abefa" - I have cracked a nut with my teeth only for a stupid person to enjoy. The latter reflects the position of a senior wife in a polygamous marriage - feeling that her achievements with her husband are being shared with undeserving younger wives. Many others deal with sayings about wise ways of living. Birds feature a lot - one indicating that "siko no antaban" - money has wings, and needs to be looked after carefully.

Older women choose fabrics for their meaning, whereas younger ones just choose styles that they like. The fabrics can also be a uniform, with a far more direct message in writing. One announces "Ghana Audit Service: Transparency, Accountability and Probity". We see this fabric made up into a yellow and green shirt worn by a member of the service, he comments "I wear this uniform but I am also proud to represent my organisation, the audit service of Ghana."

photo shows two young boys wearing primary school shirts made of wax fabrics

Legon Primary School, 1955 - 2005. Courtesy of Kodzo Gavua.

The material also expresses other affiliations - political and religious. There are a whole range of fabrics celebrating Ghanaian leaders, or marking their funerals. An understated brown on white piece shows the face and name of Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana. There's also Mama Asieku III - Queen Mothers in Ghanaian society wield considerable power in their own right.

These 'leader' fabrics are often less a pattern than big murals of their subject matter - dressed in this material, you become a walking political billboard.

Meanwhile Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians - every conceivable Christian sect - announce their faith through their clothes, with photographs of the Pope and churches worked into the print.

Unlike the branding of the Western high street - where slogans are increasingly chosen because they mean nothing specific at all - these fabrics give very direct and sometimes movingly personal messages about the wearers.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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