Referred to as ‘African wax prints’ or ‘tribal’, those fabrics are usually neither made in Africa nor designed by Africans. They are actually European or Chinese made textiles certain African countries have embraced and made their own.
African WAX prints is the a general term used to identify a category of textiles using 100% cotton fabric in vibrant colors, which are printed by machine using wax resins and dyes so that they have a batik-like effect on both sides of the fabric. The method is called wax-resist dying because the wax ‘resists’ the dye from penetrating the entire cloth, which is how patterns are made. It also goes by the names of super wax, java, and Ankara, with ‘wax’ named fabrics having a somewhat glossy, stiff, waxy feeling surface even though they are roller printed. Wax prints originated in Indonesia through Batik fabrics which has been recognized as a preserved intangible cultural heritage of humanity by the UNESCO.
As an art form, the method is ancient. The Egyptians used batik to decorate the cloths mummies were wrapped in in the 4th century BC. It was thought that the Javanese started using the technique in the 6th century and since then the practice has been at its highest level there. Some say it came to Indonesia from India or Sri Lanka, though there is evidence of non-Hindu communities in the area using it then as well.
The colonial era of Europeans in Indonesia made its biggest impact in the 18th and 19th centuries. Batik was popular with Christian missionaries who used it to cloth converts to the church. Western African soldiers also brought back beautiful Javanese fabrics to their wives after serving in the military in the Dutch East Indies between 1810 and 1862.
At the same time, the Dutch and English saw the opportunity for mass production of these fabrics back home in Europe by using new machinery to automate the dying process. This is where the term ‘Dutch wax’ and ‘wax hollandaise’ originated from, since the prints’ predominant country of origin became Holland.