The Fabric of a Nation: textiles and identity in modern Ghana

22 February – 10 April 2007

Room 3 

Admission free

This display marks the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from Britain (6 March 1957). It focuses on an important aspect of life and culture cutting across ethnic and language differences in modern Ghana – printed cloths. A wide variety of gorgeous printed cloths will be displayed, highlighting the cultural, social and economic importance of wax and ‘fancy’ prints in the country.

Wax-printed cloths are industrially produced following a resist-dye technique inspired by the Indonesian art of batik. Both methods use wax and dye to form designs on cotton cloth. The story of wax printing in Africa began on the Gold Coast, where Indonesian batiks were being imported from the mid-19th century. In 1893, a Scottish trader, Ebenezer Brown Fleming, introduced the batik-inspired wax prints produced in Holland by Haarlemse Katoen Maatschappij (HKM) to the Dutch Indies. The product became popular on the Gold Coast, and spread over West Africa into Central Africa to become a distinctive African cultural feature. Wax prints are prestigious cloths with a high social value. The most popular designs are named, the naming being an important indicator of adoption. An example would be Akonfona (Sword of kingship), in which the design references the sword, a symbol of power and authority in Ghana. Wearing this cloth is a mark of wealth and status. ‘Fancy prints’ are a version of wax prints, they are printed on one side by engraved rollers or printing screens. Examples in the exhibition include Kwame Nkrumah, Ghanaian independence, 1957, a rare piece from the British Museum’s collections which was produced to celebrate the independence of the Gold Coast and the founding of Ghana in 1956 and Guinea Worm Eradication which highlights the importance of combating the parasitic Guinea worm throughout Ghana.

Printed cloths are worn as clothes by men, women and children. They play an important role in daily life and ceremonies and they have a significant communicative value, indicating status or wealth, conveying messages as a mean of non-verbal communication. An example is a cloth featuring the proverbWeni behu naaso w’ano enntumin nnka (“Your eyes can see, but your mouth cannot say”), which teaches that not all issues are suitable for public discussion. Or Physically Disabled, a cloth made to highlight the needs of disabled people and to promote issues associated with disability. Cloths are also widely used as a powerful mass communication media, for commemorative, political, religious, social and other message conveying purposes. They play a major economic role through trade involving a network of wholesale and smaller retailers, in which women traders play a central role.

The exhibition was produced in partnership with the Department of Archaeology of the University of Ghana at Legon Museum. This collaboration is part of the British Museum’s ongoing ‘Africa Project’. The partnership involved joint field research in Ghana and the development of two similar collections, one for the Department of Archaeology of the University of Ghana at Legon Museum, and the second for the British Museum. The Legon Museum will also open an exhibition of this material on 6 March 2007.  

Besides the exhibition, the 50th anniversary of Ghanaian independence will be marked at Museum by a number of events in March, including an evening event on 8 March with the Ghana High Commissioner, HE Annan Arkyin Cato and many other community events.

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk