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The Fabric of Africanity: Tracing the Global Threads of Authenticity

by Nina Sylvanus

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This article explores the global circulation of a commodity — African wax-prints, manufactured since the late 19th century in Europe for the West African market and increasingly reproduced today in China — by way of focusing on the idea of the `authentically African’. Exploring the biography of wax fabric, this article seeks to cross-examine what serves as a parameter of authenticity, both in international markets, in which the African signifier appears as a source of the renewal of identity, and in Africa, where wax fabric’s integration into local structures of consumption as a status symbol is informed by the principles of simulation and imitation. I suggest that the notion of `Africanity’ is a conceptual construction whose validation depends more on the observer’s gaze than on the object of that gaze in the context of western consumption practices. I propose that the trajectory of wax-cloth, not only in Africa, but also in international markets, is based on the principle of reproduction and imitation which determines the notion of authenticity.

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