Cotton Global Threads exhibition: on the heritage of wax print and the exploitative nature of cotton production


A recent visit to the Cotton: Global Threads exhibition raised 2 issues that I thought were particularly relevant for the Afri-love context: the heritage of wax print and the problems with cotton (and our complicity!). 

The exhibition at Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery gives a global history of the production, consumption and trade in cotton and features art by contemporary artists including Yinka Shonibare MBE, Malian artists Abdoulaye Konaté and Aboubakar Fofana and Grace Ndiritu. As well as presenting some truly beautiful textile-related installations and pieces of art, you're in for an informative experience. 

First, some quick facts

 The international cotton trade played important role in communicating ideas, cultures, technologies and religions.

Cultivated widely in West Africa from at least 1000 CE, cotton is the main fibre in use for textile production in West Africa.


Wax print – a  mixed history

Contemporary dress in West Africa reps eclectic mix of local and imported elements. E.g. wax print which has come to signify African identity in the post-colonial period.

Actually, wax prints are industrially produced imitations of Javanese batiks.

Introduced to West Africa by Dutch and English traders in the 19th century, these fabrics may also have been imported by Africans themselves who would have been exposed to them while fighting as part of the Dutch army in their colonial wars in the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia)

Initially, these wax prints closely imitated their Javanese prototypes. Today, the prints use bright colours, the use of contemporary design motifs (e.g. mobile phones). The misalignment of colour and design is deliberate, as is the marbled effect caused by dye seeping into cracks in the resin.


Consume with caution

With the Primarks and Conways of the world – fashion has become increasingly disposable. Shoppers are not encouraged to think about how the clothes are produced. Many are either unaware or desensitised to the fact that cotton farming and manufacture is one of the most exploitative enterprises in the world.

The plant requires a lot of water, 2.6% of the world's yearly water usage to be precise. In addition, it is prone to insect attacks and the response has been one an almost unrivalled heavy use of pesticides and the environmental and health hazards that follow. GM cotton crops fare better but one US company has 90% monopoly of that market, forcing poorer farmers in the developing world into debt in order to afford it. 

Organic farming has been another response but there are financial risks involved. Yields are initially lower and so prices are higher. The world market is saturated with heavily subsidised cotton and so the price has reduced by a third since 1994, forcing many bottom farmers in West Africa further into poverty. 



So, what do we do about all of this? To start, we can be more conscious about our consumption.Awareness is transformative. In our capitalist world, how we spend our money is one way that we can effect change. 


Cotton: Global Threads is on until the 13th May 2012 at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester UK
Images taken at the exhibition. Video still from Grace Ndiritu's piece. 

6 thoughts on “Cotton Global Threads exhibition: on the heritage of wax print and the exploitative nature of cotton production”

  1. I think the real solution might be to question why we need to buy so much stuff in the first place. I don’t care how organic the cotton is, if we continue to consume like there’s no tomorrow, there won’t be.

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