For our American readers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage (April 30, 2016 – January 22, 2017) is a must see exhibition. In my opinion, it is perhaps one of the best fashion exhibitions since the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels in spring 2015 and even surpasses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s China Through the Looking Glass in terms of depth and nuance in its discussion of the “West meets East” fashion narrative. Further, it pairs its canny observations with well-curated, stunning textiles.
The exhibition focuses on the colorful wax printed textiles (batiks) associated with Central and West Africa. Although consumers in Africa and the diaspora have historically embraced the fabrics as African, the textiles have long been designed and manufactured in Europe– mainly the Netherlands and United Kingdom. The most luxurious of these textiles are the wax prints designed and manufactured using an eight-step process in the Netherlands by Vlisco, founded in 1846. The company began by exporting imitation batiks to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) however, three decades later, Vlisco found a new, lucrative market in West Africa.
The printed cloth leaves the Vlisco factory identified solely by a stock number. However, the female traders who sell the cloth in open-air markets, known as Mamas, and their customers name the patterns after local proverbs, current events, politics, religion, and material culture. One design can have many interpretations depending on the community where it is sold. The most crucial point is that it is only through this collaborative naming process that the prints acquire social meaning, status, and value and ultimately become culturally assimilated into society.
The exhibit thus asks the question– are the textiles European or African? Or can they be both? Whilst the design and production process of the unique fabrics takes place in the Netherlands, they are not named and endowed with meaning until they are sold at market in Africa. Further, the Mamas provide customer feedback to the Dutch whole-sellers, such as which prints are selling well in what colors and which designs are popular or not. The sellers then take this into account when manufacturing fabric and designs, and the Mamas, also known as Mama Benz, receive high status, wealth and respect in their communities. Recently, perhaps in acknowledgement of the prominent role local communities play in the evolution of the textiles to garments, Vlisco has attempted to move the design process to Africa, employing African-based designers.
Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage is a wonderful exhibition and worthy of a visit if you are in the Philadelphia area.