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University of Richmond Museums opens African wax print exhibition
Large Snail, n.d., manufactured by Vlisco, Netherlands: Dutch Java Print on Damask-Bazin, 48 x 12 inches, Lent courtesy of Beatrice Benson Collection.


RICHMOND, VA.- Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints opens February 13 through April 28, 2019, at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, University of Richmond Museums. The exhibition is a tribute to the centuries old handmade designs and patterns on textiles that originated in Indonesia and were copied and industrialized by Europeans and exported to Africa. The exhibition traces the developmental pathway of the African wax print and tells how these fabrics reflect the stories, dreams, and personalities of the people who wear them.

The process for handmade batiks was invented in eighth-century China, then expanded to India on the coast of Coromandel. The technique was then imported to Java by traders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Batik is a Javanese word that refers to a traditional technique of wax-resist dyeing, in which a pattern is made on both sides of cotton fabric with warm liquid wax applied by a tjanting, a small brass cup with a spout. After the wax cools and solidifies, the cloth is dyed with a primary color and the wax is then removed, revealing the pattern where the wax had once been.

J.B.T. Prévinaire, a Dutch cotton printing mill owner, was instrumental in developing a machine that could print imitation batiks industrially. In 1854, he unveiled “La Javanaise,” a converted French printing machine that could print an imitation of the Javanese batik using resin instead of wax. Despite the technological advance, “La Javanaise” produced imperfections in the print that did not appeal to the Javanese buying public, so the European printers found themselves looking for new markets around the world. After many years of transcontinental exploratory travels and investigations, they identified Africa as the new potential market for their wax prints.

The success of the wax prints on the African scene is driven by many factors, such as the culture, taste, and desires of the African consumers. Clothing in Africa serves an important means of communication, sending secret messages and retelling local proverbs. Clothing also depicts a person’s social status and position, political convictions, ambition, marital status, ethnicity, age, sex, and group affiliations. The names and stories associated with the fabrics differ from country to country and region to region. One fabric may have different names in different countries, depending on the symbolism that the consumer can read in the fabric.

The history of the African wax print is a history paved along colonial trade routes and globalization in the post-colonial era. Though not originally African, these textiles have become ingrained in African culture and society, and loved and identified as their own.

The exhibition was curated by Gifty Afua Benson, Adjunct Professor of Biology and Human Anatomy, Rogers State University and Tulsa Community College, Oklahoma, and organized by ExhibitsUSA/Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO.





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