The Newsletter 96 Autumn 2023

More Questions Than Answers

Stephen Hamilton

Pictured here is a textile produced in India for the Ghanaian cloth market being sold by Jansen Holland, a Dutch company that sells wax prints and other African textiles. It is a black and white cloth that appears to use a combination of a type of compound weave and floating warps. The patterns are taken from kente, a fine handwoven cloth originating in central and southern Ghana.

In contemporary Ghana, kente has become a marker of national identity, and among African Americans, kente has been adopted as a potent symbol of African pride and is still a luxurious fabric, one reserved for special occasions and surrounded by an air of ceremony and honor. Expensive wax print fabrics may be culturally important, precious, and imbued with a sense of prestige, but they cannot compare to the deep cultural significance placed on kente.

The need for Dutch cloth producers to insert themselves into the market for handwoven textiles despite already dominating the market for expensive wax prints resurrects images of longstanding colonial exchanges. The dynamics of these exchanges speak to a long history of Europe's fascination with the African cloth market and the complex ways they have managed to compete with local cloth production using products made in Europe and India.

This trip to the Jansen Holland shop raises many questions about power dynamics and the control of production and distribution in non-white countries to other non-white countries. Who are Janson Holland’s primary competitors in the production of this handwoven cloth? Are they weaving cooperatives, guilds, and independent artisans in west Africa with nowhere near the amount of capital or resources as a Dutch textile company? Are they Chinese and Indian commercial textile producers who also make printed textiles for African consumers? Who are the Ghanaians buying this fabric? What is the economic situation for the Indian weavers producing this cloth? Are they commissioned by this Dutch company or employed by them? What are the dynamics of their interactions with Indian craftspeople?


Stephen Hamilton, Harvard University, USA