Former President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings, and the Queen, on a wax-printed cloth in The Fabric of a Nation: Textiles and Identity in Modern Ghana, exhibition at the British Museum.

Printed Fabric: a Key to Ghanan Culture and Identity

Resin resist-dyed cotton cloth, Design: Sword of kingship (Akonfona), detail, The key image of this design was inspired by an iron ceremonial sword, which is in the collection of the British Museum. The sword has great cultural significance for Asante peoples in Ghana, where it is revered as a symbol of power and authority.

Ghana is famous for its textiles.

Kente Cloth Probably Ewe Ghana c 1986.


The British Museum
Great Russell Street
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Room 3
The Fabric of a Nation:
textiles and identity in modern Ghana

February 22-April 10, 2007

This display marks the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from Britain (6 March 6, 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 proverb Weni 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 opens an exhibition of this material on March 6, 2007.

Women showing their cloth-making skills at the Women's Training Centre in Kpobiman Village in Ghana. Photograph: David Levene.

Fancy print cotton cloth, part of a women’s garment. Design: Pain inflicted by a close relation is worse than that inflicted by an outsider (Fie mesea — etwa woa esun abontin dee). The saying advises people to maintain close and harmonious family relationships as hurt or distress caused by a family member is more difficult to bear than that caused by an outsider.

Fancy print cotton cloth.This cloth was commissioned by the Society of the Physically Disabled to highlight the needs of physically disabled people and to promote issues associated with disability. The motto of the society reads:"Together we stand."

Wax printed cloth, A hen fye (The King's House), Printed in Ghana, 2006.

Grains of Africa, Multi-coloured Ghanaian Akosombo Print Fabric.