Wax Print documentary unwraps history of African fabrics

An inde­pen­dent film­mak­er is unwrap­ping the sto­ry of tra­di­tion­al African cloth­ing in a new glo­be­trot­ting documentary.

British-Niger­ian fash­ion design­er and film­mak­er Aiwan Obinyan has delved into the his­to­ry and sym­bol­ism of ankara – also known as Dutch wax-print fab­rics – for her first fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary, Wax Print: From the Cra­dle to the Grave.

“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,” said Obinyan. “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.”

The bright colours and intri­cate pat­terns of African wax-prints have been adopt­ed into the fash­ion lines of many young design­ers and inde­pen­dent cloth­ing brands, such as Kitenge. While these aes­thet­i­cal­ly stun­ning gar­ments make a clear fash­ion state­ment – espe­cial­ly when worn in a city like Lon­don, tra­di­tion­al­ly, African women used the fab­rics as a method of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and expres­sion, with par­tic­u­lar pat­terns gain­ing wide­ly under­stood mean­ings, from the abstract (moral views) to the inti­mate (“I believe my hus­band is cheat­ing on me”).

So far, the project has tak­en Obinyan and her crew to fab­ric mills in Man­ches­ter, the Vlis­co cloth­ing fac­to­ry in the Nether­lands, and the mar­kets of Ghana.

In the doc­u­men­tary, Obinyan uncov­ers how African women used the fab­rics as a method of self-expres­sion and empow­er­ment, as well as study­ing colo­nial­ism, coun­ter­feit­ing and economics.

She is crowd­fund­ing to com­plete the final pieces of her pro­duc­tion now.

Obinyan told Fringe Fre­quen­cy that her inspi­ra­tion for the doc­u­men­tary start­ed while design­ing her first col­lec­tion for her cloth­ing line Onomen.

“I realised that, although I’d grown up with the fab­rics, I didn’t know much about where they came from, the influ­ence behind the designs and why they were so pop­u­lar,” she said.

“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.”

Pro­duc­tion on Wax Print began in June 2016 at Afrop­unk Paris. Obinyan aims to pre­miere the fin­ished film in June 2018.

Obinyan has a few film­ing dates left on her shoot­ing sched­ule, which includes trav­el­ling to Ekpo­ma to film a recon­struc­tion of her grandmother’s sewing school.

“Work­ing on Wax Print has been inspir­ing, enlight­en­ing and chal­leng­ing. I’ve met many very gen­er­ous and knowl­edge­able peo­ple who have essen­tial­ly changed my life with their warmth and open­ness,” she told Fringe Fre­quen­cy. “I hope that Wax Print will become an impor­tant part of the archives of African and world his­to­ry, and maybe future gen­er­a­tions might watch it and learn about the pow­er of the human mind and spirit.”

A keen cre­ative, Obinyan stud­ied Music Tech­nol­o­gy at Leeds Col­lege of Music and Leeds Beck­ett Uni­ver­si­ty, writ­ing songs and learn­ing sound engi­neer­ing. She con­tin­ues to use those skills, but her shift into film start­ed out by mak­ing short films and music video with friends.

Keep up with the Wax Print doc­u­men­tary on the offi­cial web­site, and to donate to the project vis­it its Kick­starter page.

Image: cour­tesy of Aiwan Obinyan