The popularity of wax print, also known as ‘Ankara’ continues to grow from strength to strength.
A staple in many of our wardrobes, the vibrantly coloured and patterned cotton fabrics have even had the nod of approval from the celebrity world, with Beyoncé, Rihanna and even Lady Gaga rocking the look. We were fascinated to learn about the production of a feature-length film about the colourful world of African Ankara textiles, its history and how it is made.
The documentary, entitled WAX PRINT: From the Cradle to the Grave, is the brainchild of British-Nigerian filmmaker Aiwan Obinyan, who set off on a year-long journey tracing the history and symbolism of Ankara – also known as Dutch wax- print fabric – shortly after she’d started using it in her own heritage-inspired clothing designs.
The film’s title reflects the fact that the bold Ankara prints are a unifying thread that runs through the lives of West Africans around the globe. Director Aiwan says: “From the moment we’re born, we’re wrapped in wax-print fabrics. They’re a huge part of special occasions throughout our lives, to the extent that we’re even buried in them. I wanted to know how this came about, so I started looking into the history, and that’s when unexpected threads started coming to the surface.”
Aiwan’s film explores the origins of the fabrics, through to their appearance during the Civil Rights Movement in America, when wearing Ankara became a symbolic act of rebellion against the system, to today’s innovations and changes in the way the striking fabrics are produced and used.
Speaking of her crew’s journey, Aiwan says: “Wax print has a colourful history in more ways than one! It’s taken us to surprisingly diverse locations. We’ve been connecting the dots between mills in Manchester and market women in Ghana. And we knew we definitely had to stop off at the legendary Vlisco factory in the Netherlands. We spent two whole days there – it was amazing.”
“One of the things I loved most,” she continues, “was learning the meanings West African women have assigned to certain patterns. When you’re wearing a wax-print dress, you can be making a lot more than a fashion statement!”
Stunning patterns and unspoken messages aside, the documentary also explores everything from colonialism and counterfeiting to economics and the empowerment of women. And then there’s Aiwan’s personal storyline…
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, my grandma ran a sewing school and tailoring business in Ekpoma in Edo State, Nigeria. She’s nearly 80 now, but she was a real entrepreneur back in the day, and ended up supplying custom clothes to all the surrounding businesses.
“I showed her some of my designs when she was over visiting us a few years ago. My mum told me later she’d said, ‘I’ve been praying for God to raise up a child who will carry on my legacy.’ In other words, she’s happy I’m using the fabrics!”
Aiwan has almost completed filming, but has embarked on a crowdfunding appeal to raise £2,500 to shoot the last part of the film and continue on to post-production. The full-length documentary is expected to premiere in the international film festival circuit in 2018.