Saturday, December 17, 2011

More prints gone upscale

No sooner had I encountered a whole room full of commercial print fabrics on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts than I walked up a floor and found a sculpture by Yinka Shonibare that featured -- they're everywhere!! -- commercial print fabrics.

Yinka Shonibare, Dressing Down, 1997

Shonibare, a Nigerian artist, often uses batik prints associated with African or Indonesian fabrics to construct period European clothing, juxtaposing both sides of the imperial/colonial relationship.

Considering the subtext of the artist's identification with the exploited rather than the exploiters, I have always wondered whether Shonibare does his own sewing or sends it out to some nameless operative. An hour searching on the Internet failed to answer the question.

But it did find a couple of interesting scholarly papers pointing out that the batik fabrics used in Shonibare's work have a complicated history.

Originally, prints like these were made in Indonesia.  In the 1800s Dutch traders attempted to make similar fabric in Europe and sell to the Indonesians (didn't work; the Dutch cloth wasn't as high quality as the originals).  The European fabrics were then sold to Africans, still bearing the Indonesian-inspired designs, where today they are regarded as the next best thing to indigenous.  And Shonibare purchases the fabric for his works at markets in London.

Which reminds me of a beautiful length of batik that I bought in Antwerp several years ago.  In that Belgian city, like many other places in Europe, we saw many people wearing African dress, and happened upon some fabric shops that specialized in batiks.  Unfortunately, all the fabric came in five-meter pieces, apparently the length needed for a standard outfit (flowing dress plus headwrap).  I really wanted ten half- or quarter-meter cuts of different patterns, but had to settle for one big piece, as we were doing the Low Countries by train (and foot) with limited luggage space.  It took me a long time to decide on this one from the dozens and dozens of spectacular patterns.

Note how the selvage on the yellow edge of the fabric is in French; on the blue side it's in English.  I think UNTL is the logo of the fabric company.

I've used a few small bits of this fabric in quilts but a big hunk remains.  Probably not enough to make a victorian dress with a bustle and ruffles.


  1. If that's a sculpture, I have a new understanding of the shape my wedding gown project is going to take.

  2. Mary Jo -- this one is kind of just standing there looking like a department store mannequin. Most of his sculptures replicate famous paintings or sculptures of the past, such as the famous Fragonard girl in a swing. But no heads, and dressed in these fabulous dutch wax outfits. Sometimes he does men in frilly European court dress (but made out of batik).

  3. These bold prints would look fabulous for period stage costumes, on a really big stage. I work primarily in wardrobe at the San Diego Civic Theatre, an almost 4,000 seat house. Anything smaller scale than this doesn't even read in the mezzanine, let alone the back of the second balcony.

    Linda Laird

  4. Yinka works with collaboration. For one thing he has severe health issues. He does design the cloth and does many installation and mixed media works. He was featured on Art: 21 which is available through PBS.

  5. Did you notice in the background there's a painting of a nude man? He very much looks like he's leaning toward the dress/sculpture with great interest. First thing I noticed. Yeah, I'm weird.

  6. I love this fabric since it is yellow. Yellow Dutch wax is the bomb! I just posted a quilt I made with my collection of Dutch wax fabrics on my blog yesterday. I love the stuff! There was a shop in Cincy, Oh that went out of business (at least the brick and morter part) so if you bought the 6, 10, or 12 yard lenghts the fabric was only $1.75 a yard. To say the least I came home with a lot of fabric - 400+ yards - oops!