MELBOURNE, FLA. — Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints opens Sept. 1 at Florida Institute of Technology’s Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts. It is a tribute to the century-old handmade designs and patterns on textiles that originated in Indonesia and were copied and industrialized by Europeans and exported to West Africa.
The history of the African wax print is a history paved along colonial trade routes and globalization in the post-colonial era. Though not originally African, these textiles have become ingrained in many regions of African culture and society.
Wandering Spirit traces the developmental pathway of the African wax print and tells how these fabrics reflect the stories, dreams, and personalities of the people who wear them.
Maybe better known as by its Javanese description batik, the handiwork on display is based on a traditional technique of wax-resistant dyeing in which a pattern is made on both sides of cotton fabric with warm liquid wax applied by a small, brass cup with a spout known as a tjanting. After the wax cools and solidifies, the cloth is dyed with a primary color and the wax is then removed, revealing the pattern where the wax had once been.
J.B.T. Prévinaire, a Dutch cotton printing mill owner, was instrumental in developing a machine that could print imitation batiks. Despite the technological advance, “La Javanaise” produced imperfections in the print that did not appeal to the Javanese buying public, so the European printers found themselves looking for new markets around the world. After many years of transcontinental exploratory travels and investigations, they identified Africa as the new potential market for their wax prints.
The success of the wax prints on the African scene is driven by many factors, such as the culture, taste and desires of African consumers. Clothing in Africa serves an important means of communication, sending hidden messages and retelling local proverbs. Clothing also depicts a person’s social status and position, political convictions, ambition, marital status, ethnicity, age, sex and group affiliations.
Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints is curated by Gifty Benson, Ph.D., adjunct professor at Rogers State University, and organized by ExhibitsUSA/Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, Missouri. A supplemental exhibition, also curated by Benson, is organized by The African Hospitals Foundation, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Select programming is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation for Brevard.
At 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 1, Benson will lead a free gallery tour of the exhibition. A collector of African wax prints and textiles, she will lead a talk that highlights stories associated with each object and the detailed meaning of their patterns and designs in West African culture. The event is free and open to the public.
Also on Sept. 1, the Center, in partnership with Think Humanity, a nonprofit charity whose efforts support refugee communities in Africa, will offer a retail space with goods handmade by populations in Uganda. Sales proceeds will support and foster education within these displaced communities.
Wandering Spirit runs through Dec. 15.
Regular hours for the Ruth Funk Center are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. The center is next to Evans Library on the Florida Tech campus, 150 W. University Blvd. in Melbourne. Admission is free. More information at http://textiles.fit.edu/.