It's not all black and white

LONDON - The colonialists were finally caught up and made to acknowledge that their game was over many years ago.

Africans refuse to be taken for a ride and be called “simple and friendly people”, while their inheritance is being taken from under them. The days of “I give you sugar and you give me land” are truly over. But are they really?

As I write this, I am absolutely fuming, allow me a little bit of ranting space. Once again I have arrived at this place of reminiscing and holding on to those sweet memories which have just been crushed in a second.

I feel somewhat traumatised. As, Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian British contemporary artist put it so well when he said:

“A picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe. An image of “African fabric” isn’t necessarily authentically (and wholly) African”.

Allow me to explain the source of my anger. Shonibare is well known for his installations using mannequins dressed in Dutch ‘Wax print’. The colonialists I mentioned in my introduction have been left shocked to the core by his work, which challenges issues of colonialism, authenticity and hybridity.

I have known for a few years now that the fabric commonly known as “African fabric” has a more complex and culturally diverse history than meets the eye.

Looking at the fabric alone tells wondrous stories of colonialism, globalisation and post- modernism.

After its resounding failure in Indonesia at the end of the 19th Century, the wax print was successfully marketed in West Africa.

A product of circumstances, the fabric has nothing inherently African about it and yet it has became a symbol of Africa-ness.

This very wax print which ironically has so much colonial history has also become a trademark for many designers.

I have consistently raised  questions on whether the “African print’’ is just about Europeans appropriating ‘African’ fabrics in an attempt to bring a bit of “jungle flavour’’ in their dress or whether  it is about Africans attempting to assimilate the fashion of the coloniser and still holding on to ‘authenticity’ that actually does not exist?

What makes me angry is our failure as a continent to produce our own textiles based on our own research, interpretations and designs despite the vast talent Africa possesses.

I personally know many African textile designers, one a Zimbabwean designer, Fikile Dube who is now based in South of Africa. I remember back in the 90s Fiki’s object of desire was in creating her own textiles and this was way before fashion blew up in Zimbabwe. What amazing work she produced!

My mission this year is to talk to talented designers who are interested in finally making a change.

We all do tend to talk a lot without following up with action. The latter is always my frustration. We are a continent that is perfectly capable and yet designers are spending thousands of dollars buying fabric which, in my own view is falsified and deceitful.

That may sound harsh but there is no other way of describing a fabric that has been made to appear African when it is clearly not.

Shonibare, while using the dreaded fabric, has cleverly made good use of popular culture as a decorative impact and, in doing so, has challenged the fact that high art can be never pure but contaminated.

He makes it clear that he knows about the origins of the fabric, thus almost creating comedy with his work which, with a hint of irony, highlights the use of ‘fake’ African fabric to symbolise Africa. The guy is a pure genius and no wonder his work is respected worldwide.

The problem that arises with the idea of “borrowing’’ or ‘‘hybridity’’ is that it may lead to the weakening of a culture.

Among post-colonial theorists, there is a belief that this “borrowing’’ came out of the cultural interactions between colonisers and the colonised, while other academics have argued that the colonisers and the colonised are mutually dependant on each other on constructing a shared culture as seen in Shonibare’s installations.

It is interesting to note how the colonisers and the colonised complement each other in a sordid but effective way.

I feel better writing about this after spending the whole week being irked about fabrics that are supposed to be African yet they are clearly not.

If anyone has a good solution to finally escaping this crazy mental colonisation please do get in touch!

This is an extract from An exploratory case study on the African fashion industry: The rise and fall By Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri.

*Pamela is a Zimbabwean fashion journalist.

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