Opening Debra S. Boyd’s latest book, Wax Prints of the Sahel, felt like opening a treasure chest filled with rich, vibrantly colored fabrics, each with a story I couldn’t wait to discover. Inside the cover, page after page of African cultural history revealed itself as wax printed fabrics transmitting messages, ideologies, and histories of people, places, and events of various regions of the Saheel.
Being a seamstress, Boyd is no stranger to quality fabric. Her collection of over three hundred cloths are truly collectors’ items, since commemorative African fabrics such as these come in limited quantities and at limited times. Wearing commemorative apparel is popular in many cultures today, and in modern Black culture it has become a form of African identity.
Organized into seven sections including “Political Life in the African Sahel,” “Women in the African Sahel,” “Sports in Africa,” “Arts and Culture in Africa,” and “Education and Health in Africa,” among others, the author made great effort to present colorful pictures of wax cloths commemorating people and events important to specific regions, including their historical and cultural events. One of my favorites was the “Mother Poco” or Bird Scarf of Burkina Faso. This scarf, a traditional piece worn by women of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, depicts several doves flying in a pattern on red cloth. As a motif, the dove symbolizes peace, unity, and freedom, and signifies getting along with others. Another favorite, the Cowrie Shell motif, is associated with wealth, fertility, and esthetics. The cowrie shell has a long history in Africa, first appearing in Mali by way of Arab merchants, and later used as a form of money by Spanish and Portuguese navigators in exchange for slaves.
Cloths commemorating International Women’s Day show the faces of women and logos of the organizations supporting their initiatives. La Semaine Nationale de Femme Tchadienne, or Chadian Women’s Week, is one such occasion in which commemorative wax cloths are ordered and produced. Aissa Diori, the First Lady of the Republic of Niger from 1960-1974, had songs written about her. She was a huge advocate of supporting rural and nomadic communities. A special cloth depicts her face and name.
In this way, cloths serve as history texts to remind people of those who came before and what causes they championed. Boyd shares these histories along with each wax cloth shown. Even Barak Hussein Obama II, our 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is featured on a cloth, being the first African American to hold Presidential office. He is the child of an American mother and a Kenyan father.
Africa is rich in history—some of it painful, as in the colonization and decades of struggle for independence. But Africa’s contemporary stories, depicted on colorful commemorative cloths, also capture famous athletes, Olympic games, leaders of important movements for women, and children like Aoua Keita from Mali, along with political figures who’ve spent a lifetime working for the improvement of African society.
Just as the ancient Greeks created tapestries for story telling, or the Navajos weave textiles to preserve their culture, or many parts of Asia perfected block printing to transmit information, the Wax Prints of the Sahel records for all time the creative genius and history of one of the world’s greatest continents. Boyd has expertly curated these cloths in a book for all time. I would highly recommend it for art and world history teachers at the secondary level, or anyone who enjoys learning about other cultures.