By Rachel Leeds
“The scope of meaning associated with cloth is so wide… [It] is to the African what monuments are to Westerners.” — El Anatusui, a contemporary artist from Ghana
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, apparently so is your pagne. The abundance of traditional West African fabrics – commonly referred to as “tish” by PCVs – in Benin might make them easy to overlook, but the history of these fabrics is rich, and the communicative role of a pagne can be highly varied. The majority of the fabrics that surround us every day have a culturally specific meaning. When the newest patterns hit the market, they may not have adopted their deeper significance yet, but the classic patterns that are reproduced year after year have interesting, and often surprising, stories to tell. We present here a collection of several that are important in the discussion of gender equality and empowerment in Beninese society.
Although the wax prints we find in the market today were most likely produced in Europe or Asia, they do not acquire meaning until they get to Africa when they enter into the dialogue with market women and merchants. José Teunissen explains in his history of Vlisco that the tradition of naming holds symbolic as well as practical significance. “By giving a design a name – and thereby endowing it with a unique meaning – the African women appropriate the cloth produced in the West and make it part of their own culture. By means of naming, this foreign, European commodity is annexed and transformed into something that is truly their own”. This is a significant and empowering opportunity for local women traders, who are the mediums through which these messages are decided and disseminated in their communities. The same tissue may even have different meanings in different regions.
Some patterns are blatantly empowering. Without knowing its corresponding proverb or interpretation, we enjoy a visual celebration of femininity. Bold patterns of lipstick, high heels, purses, and interlocked engagement rings are displayed in a dazzling spectrum of bright colors.
Other patterns have a subtler significance, and many of these focus on love, relationships, and family. Birds are a commonly employed motif, and can evoke a variety of meanings depending on the design and context.
In these two designs, the bird symbolizes a messenger, and these pagnes are used to express a desire to visit a woman’s family’s home, often in order to ask for her hand in marriage;
A mother hen surrounded by eggs and chicks represents the strength and unity of family;
The title of the fourth tissue, displaying a bird cage, is “You fly, I fly” – a message of warning to newlywed husbands that if they are unfaithful their wife has no obligation to honor the relationship either.
Similarly, the cloth below is called “Spider” and it evokes the Anyi (Cote d’Ivoire) proverb “what one does to a cenda [a smaller spider], one does not do to bokohulu [a larger more dangerous spider].” But the underlying message addresses newlywed husbands who have previously been unfaithful to their other wives. It suggests that a new wife should not be maltreated like the former. A clever defense of fidelity, despite the fact that it equates women to spiders.
The two designs below use the symbols of cushions and stools, respectively, to communicate similar messages. The first, on the left, represents the cushions of wealthy women in Mauritania. Because of their wealth, prestige, and social position, they do not have to work and instead merely rest their heads on pillows. The name of the tissue on the right literally translates as “in our home, you will be queen” and represents a traditional West African stool as a symbol of a married woman, seated, installed in her household where she reigns supreme.
The fan of popular pagne patterns below represents a range of meanings: (1) entitled yin mou yi devide be ha o, it evokes a message of disconnect, literally meaning “we are not of the same social level, we do not come from the same water.” In a book that discusses the meanings of various Vlisco patterns, they pose the following possible situation: Imagine that both the man and woman in a relationship each buy this tissue, the woman for wearing out and the man for his pagne to wear at home. They pose this domestic scenario as a “cold war” waged with pagne. (2) is called Jalousie and the title of (4) signifies that the woman wearing the pattern is so beautiful that her husband burns with jealousy. The title of (5) is Mon mari est capable and implies his ability to provide for his wife, and her pride in that fact.
Beyond the literal meanings of these patterns, the selection, purchase and use of fabric is an equally important marker of status, regardless of sex. Pagnes are offered to a bride-to-be and her family as part of the traditional rituals of proposing marriage, and it is with these new fabrics that she is ready to adopt her new role as wife, mother and homemaker. Commemorative fabric is customized and printed for events such as International Women’s Day, anniversaries, elections, etc., and, as any volunteer will tell you, a fête isn’t a fête without même tish. We begin our service with a demonstration of our solidarity and unity through sector-specific fabric at swear-in, and tissue continues to play an important role in our social integration and functioning as PCVs.
We can draw another example of the contextual significance of West African cloth from the Ijo people in Nigeria. Although the pattern’s name, “Ikakibite,” merely translates as “the cloth of the tortoise,” it is this cloth that is worn by women during their coming of age ceremony, and which appropriates male status to them during the important ceremony (Omatseye and Emeriewen, 2012). In this way, even fabric that does not have a gender-specific translation can be used in order to communicate our understandings of gender roles and our relationships to them.
No matter where we are in the world, our sartorial decisions play an important role in the expression of our culture and our personality. In West Africa, your fabric has a lot to say, and it’s up to you whether it’s said with loud confidence or subdued style. Careful interpretation and analysis may deepen our appreciation for any given work of art, but of equal importance is our personal appreciation of its aesthetic value. What does your tish mean to you?