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Patterns in Circulation : Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa (Paperback) (Nina Sylvanus)

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Wax cloth is the vibrantly colored and intricately patterned fabric known globally as a quintessential symbol of West African identity, but its origins tell a complex story of colonial appropriation and international trade. The cloth originated as a Dutch colonial attempt to cheaply reproduce South Asian batik fabric. When this failed to take off in Asia, Dutch traders began to sell it in West African markets, and slowly modified its patterns to fit local tastes. Today, it is no less reflective of trends in global capitalismas low-cost Chinese reproductions become ubiquitous, historic Dutch manufacturers try to leverage their cultural capital as authentic, heritage brands. In Patterns in Circulation, anthropologist Nina Sylvanus tracks the history of Dutch wax cloth in Togo to tell a commodity market’s coming of age story.” After introducing the cloth’s colonial history, she describes the Nana-Benzes, Togolese women who acquired immense wealth by controlling regional trade from the 1950s to the 1990s, and who ultimately became a political symbol of the nation’s prosperity. This history culminates in Sylvanus’s rich ethnography of the modern-day cloth market, including Nanettes,” young traders who import counterfeit patterns from China and convey West African preferences for fabric pattern, color, finishing, and even taste to Chinese manufacturers. In doing so, the Nanettes undercut Nana-Benzes’ dominance and disrupt the hierarchical, class-based system that previously organized the clothing market. Sylvanus synthesizes a large body of recent scholarship on Chinese investment in emerging African markets, but avoids the common conclusion that Chinese involvement is simply a neocolonial form of exploitation. Instead, she uses the experiences of specific Nanettes to explore the historical dimension of Chinese business in Africa and to show that partnership with China offers precarious opportunities for entrepreneurship to young Togolese women.

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