Batik has been around for centuries, in lands as diverse as Japan, India, and Egypt. As an art form that grew and thrived in multiple cultures before the time of recorded history, it is impossible to trace its direct origins, but there is no doubt about its popularity in West Africa today. Textiles have long played an important role in many African cultures, often carrying with them symbolic meaning, communicating social cues, and being used ceremonially. Batik gained popularity in the region as early as the sixteenth century, when Dutch soldiers and tradesmen brought the fabrics from Indonesia, introducing them into coastal markets. Once there, the cloth spread inland and quickly became assimilated into local cultures, which then influenced the patterns being produced and made the fabric their own.
Today, Ghana is home to artisan producers whose creativity and skill transform this popular textile into a true art form. During the post-colonial era in the 1960s and 1970s, handmade batik took precedence over the mass-produced Dutch wax prints that dominated the market. Batik became an expression of post-colonial identity and reclamation of cultural pride. Though the production of handmade batik textiles suffered over subsequent decades when the market was flooded with inexpensive, mass-produced fabric from Asia, it has since experienced a revival. As a craft that requires little in the way of expensive tools, batik does not require too much in the way of start-up costs, making it an ideal handicraft for artisans looking for self-expression and income through their craft.
The process of making batik uses wax resist to block areas of the fabric from taking on dye. The design must be envisioned as negative space, and multiple colors require many steps as the process is repeated for each additional dye. Artisans start with white cotton fabric, and using a stamp made of carved wood or thick foam (and sometimes paint brushes for finer details), they apply a mix of hot melted paraffin and beeswax. The combination of these two kinds of wax is necessary to control the ease of application and the amount of cracking when the wax dries. After the first stamping is done, the fabric is dipped in a large vat of dye. Any part of the cloth covered in wax will remain white. The first dye used must be the brightest color in the final pattern.
After the initial application of wax and dye, fabric that will have more than one color in its pattern must go through the process again for each additional color. The once dyed fabric is gently rinsed and allowed to hang dry. Then, process is repeated. Each time wax is applied, the fabric will retain its current color; thus, the design is created from the lightest to the darkest color, with any completely uncovered part of the fabric taking on the color created by all of the dyes to which it has been exposed during the process.
When all the dying is finished and the final pattern is complete, the fabric is boiled to remove the wax. Artisans boil the fabric in a large metal pot, skimming off the wax as it melts and leaves the fabric; the recovered wax is then collected and can be reused. Once again, the fabric is hung out to dry. The finished textile is not only a beautiful, unique creation — trace amounts of wax left in the fabric make it resistant to stains, an added benefit of the process.
Just as the layers of wax and dye create a complex and special textile, the years of history and cultural tradition in Ghanaian culture imbue this craft with meaning to its creators. It is a form of self-expression, but that expression takes form within a great framework of deeply meaningful cultural symbols, ceremonies, and the post-colonial struggle for a unique, African identity.
Its layers are what make batik so beautiful.