Is wax print African? – a conversation with filmmaker Aiwan Obinyan

“If we really owned wax print textiles we could and would keep the bulk of the proceeds in Africa and it would be part of the generational wealth of African children.” – Aiwan Obinyan, Wax Print.

The issue of whether Africans own wax print textiles is not new. But it remains a hugely complex topic that challenges our understanding of our African identities, and the roles that colonialism, and commerce play in our relationship with a fabric.

Aiwan in a wax print shop in Ghana. Image sourced from AiAi Studios & Wax Print Film.

This is why the release of Wax Print in 2018 marked a seminal moment for me in drawing these complicated strands of the conversation together into one visual archive. For those of you that haven’t watched this feature documentary, it traces the global history of this fabric over a 200-year period across four continents and most importantly, draws on the rich tapestry of African voices in the diaspora and on the continent.

African women in wax print. Image sourced from AiAi Studios & Wax Print Film.

Wax Print was created by Aiwan Obinyan, a Nigerian-British filmmaker and music composer, who has worked in the film and music industries with clients, including British theatre company Young Vic, and British TV channel ITV. In 2013, she founded AiAi Studios, a production company, through which the film was produced, that specialises in music and sound design for film, TV and artists.

Aiwan was inspired to create the documentary after her grandmother commented on the fabric she was using as part of a clothing line she launched in 2014.

Aiwan wrote: ‘When my Nigerian grandma saw the clothes, she remarked: “Ah, you are using Hollandaise, that’s good.” I was confused as to why she referred to it as ‘Hollandaise’ and why that was good, and so began a journey to discover the true history of wax print and to answer the question ‘is wax print African?’.

Aiwan and grandmother. Image sourced from AiAi Studios & Wax Print Film.

“Watch the trailer here”

Over a two-year period and largely self-funded (apart from Arts Council England funding at the post production stage), Aiwan traced the journey of textile from the USA’s cotton fields; the Vlisco textile manufacturing factory in The Netherlands; Ghana’s markets where the cloth is sold and to her grandmother’s sewing school in Nigeria. She also spoke to young Africans in the diaspora about their relationship with the textile, and explored the impact of countries like China on the print’s counterfeit trade.

The documentary has been officially selected at a number of international festivals and is available in English, French and Japanese subtitles. I finally got the chance to see it during the Camden Black History Month screening in November 2020, and after the event, got to pose further questions to Aiwan. Below are her answers.

During the Wax Print film Q&A, you mentioned about how researching the film has changed your relationship with the textile. Do you think it is possible that something that was imposed on Africans can become African?

I wouldn’t say it was imposed – it was introduced by merchants and missionaries and combined with the creative business savvy of the Nana Benz (the powerful traders who became the middle-women between the merchants and the African women), wax prints were able to take hold in the West and Central African markets. Yes, there were powerful business interests invested in the success of wax prints in the African market and some would say this had a detrimental impact on indigenous textiles. But it wasn’t forced on anyone. Trade in fine things has been a part of Africa’s story for millennia.

Nana Benz wax print. The Nana Benz were the powerful traders who became the middle-women between the merchants and the African women. Image sourced from AiAi Studios & Wax Print Film.

We Africans have made it work and put our stamp on it, but it’s never really been ours. We all know when something belongs to us. If I buy a TV it’s mine. If I subsequently sell the TV, I keep all of the proceeds. However, if I rent the TV and during the course of the ownership of the TV, I break it – I now owe money to the person I rented it from.

If we really owned wax print textiles, we could and would keep the bulk of the proceeds in Africa and it would be part of the generational wealth of African children. But alas, we do not own wax prints and never did. So, we should see it for what it is and focus on and invest in the textiles we have created and actually do own. Adire, Kente, Batik, Bogolan, Raffia and more, we are rich in textiles.

Your film is really rich in content, historical information, and in giving us an understanding of the structures that ensure the wealth from the industry still leaves the continent. Have you found that your film has had a transformative change in mindsets on a public level in the diaspora or the Motherland, and among businesses?

Based on the discussions I’ve had around the world from Japan to the USA, the UK to Ghana and various parts of Europe, I would say people were already asking many of the questions the film poses. Wax Print came along at the right time to be part of that conversation and perhaps offers some additional information and historical analysis.

The scratch test checks the authenticity of the textiles. Image sourced from AiAi Studios & Wax Print Film.

The conversations have been incredible. I’ve grown and learnt so much since the release of the film and I’m incredibly honoured to have been a part of such an important conversation within the Black community – even if only in a small way.

You mentioned during Camden’s Black History Month Q&A that you self-funded Wax Film (because you initially didn’t get help), and then got funding from Arts Council England. What has the experience taught you about the process of finding funding and why do you think it was challenging initially?

Funding is like legalese. It has its own language and etiquette. Funding is difficult if you don’t know the language of funding. Unfortunately, this language favours a certain demographic namely the middle and upper-middle-classes.

Thankfully, I had help from a friend of mine, Maggie, who had been working in the funding sphere for many decades and understood exactly what was required. That form was epic in its complexity and tedium.

I remember putting things on the form that I thought were amazing and she immediately stripped them back or reworded them in such a way that it read the way the funders would want it to be worded. It’s tricky. My advice? Get help. Don’t go it alone.

A matching block with wax print textile. Image sourced from AiAi Studios & Wax Print Film.

Your background is in music (rapping and rap writing), music engineering and theatre. How easy was it to move into film-making and directing?

It wasn’t too hard because the two industries play well together. My skills as a musician and audio engineer were readily transferrable. And so, I began composing music for film and doing sound for film (recording on-set dialogue etc.). Seeing a film come to life, from script to screen, is pretty mind-blowing all the different departments coming together to tell one story, I was hooked. Watching the directors and camera-ops do their thing on-set, I was convinced I wanted to learn how it all worked and so I borrowed a camera from a friend (for a year?!) and the rest is herstory.

You are the architect behind the film Kenyan, Christian, Queer, which is quite different to Wax Print. What else can we expect from you in coming months/years?

Well, a big part of my business is podcasting which fits my audio skills perfectly. I just finished a podcast episode for BBC Sounds based on the Small Axe anthology by Steve McQueen – here.

I’m currently working on a podcast series on the criminology and the justice system with my uncle, the one who appears in the Wax Print film! It will focus on the history of the criminal justice systems in the UK and USA, current issues particularly pertaining to the diaspora. It will also look at the impact on Africa historically and presently and finally what the future holds as these systems evolve. I’m incredibly excited about this. All being well, it will launch by the middle of 2021.

I also worked on a series for VICE ‘BLM-Global’ as associate producer on the Denmark and Italy episodes. It is pretty hard-hitting stuff and comes out in February 2021.

To find out more about Aiwan’s work, visit: http://www.waxprintfilm.com

And to read more blogs like this, check out:

Tracing identity and ownership through Batik

Could Ghana take a leaf out of Tanzania’s textile industry?

More posts on fashion

 

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