Art of Batik Shared by Ghanaian Who Creates Designs With Character and Soul
The art of batik has been around for more than 2,000 years. This exotic type of textile is characterized by its unique production process, color, and appearance of looking "crackled". The ancient craft of creating batik first originated in 13th century Indonesia. From there, 17th century traders from China, the Middle East, India and Europe introduced the brightly-colored patterns of batik to their own and other cultures. In the early 19th century, batik made its way to Ghana, where the art form has flourished.
Meet Edwina Assan, founder of Edtex Batiks, a textile manufacturing company in Sakumono, Tema in Ghana. Under Edwina's leadership, Edtex's team of eight employees produce handmade batik. The Edtex team focuses on community, sustainability, and creativity in their work, vowing to use natural and safer dyes, a better sanitation process, and reuse waste water.
Competing against mass production and modern technology, Edtex's handmade goods carry character and soul. The company sells batik textiles to private label brands, fashion designers, and product developers, and in the process aim to reduce local poverty in Ghana by creating wealth and teaching the community employable skills.
Enjoy this conversation with culture creator Edwina Assan on the art of batik, her sources of inspiration, and reflections on creativity.
Bird's Eye View of Ghanaian Culture
Meg: Can you give readers a bird's eye view of Ghana and its culture?
Edwina: Ghana is a small country in West Africa with a population of around 30 million. It was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to attain its independence. We have traditional chiefs in all towns and villages who are the leaders of their community. We also have political leaders who are elected through elections.
Geographically, the country is in the 'center of the world' as we usually say. If you draw the Greenwich Meridian and the Equator, Ghana is the closest country to where the two meet. The country is rich in natural resources including minerals, plants, and fossil oil.
Ghana has a rich culture with a lot of different dialects both spoken and written. There are as many food varieties and ethnic groups as you move from one town to the other. In one conference that I attended in a different African country, I told my close friend from Europe (when we were both tired of eating the same food within a week), that if she followed me to Ghana, I would be able to cook her a different dish each day for a six week holiday. That is how much variety we have with food.
Kente and Adinkra are traditional fabrics that originated from Ghana and were presented to the world. There are other woven fabrics that are not as popular. We have a variety of other traditional crafts in pottery, jewelry (metals), wood, and combinations of these media.
As a tourist destination, Ghana boasts of three World Heritage Sites - the castles and forts located throughout the Volta Region, the Greater Accra Region, the Central Region, and the Western Region. There are nice beaches, falls, national game reserves with elephants and other animals in their natural habitats.
Meg: Could you share a little bit about your personal heritage?
Edwina: I am a Fante, a group within the Akan ethnic group (that makes up about 40 percent of the population). Fantes originate from the Central Region of Ghana. Our region stretches from the coastline into the interior. It's the tourism heartbeat of the country.
There are a number of festivals that are held yearly in different parts of the region for various reasons such as a bountiful harvest; celebrating when a tribe arrived in their present location after migrating from another part of Africa; and commemorating the population being cured of a certain disease.
Cape Coast also has the largest concentration of many good schools in a small area. Arts produced in the central region include weaving, pottery/ceramics, carving, and batiks (textile printing).
What is the Art of Batik?
Meg: Can you explain what batik is and share any history about its use in Ghana?
Edwina: Batik is the process of resisting fabric from taking color in the dyeing process by the use of wax. It’s believed to have come into Ghana through traders from the North East of Africa around the 19th century.
Meg: You have been making batik fabrics for more than 25 years. How did you first get introduced to batik?
Edwina: I was introduced to tie and dye as an extra curriculum activity in the primary school as one of the privileged six to produce fabric that was used in clothing soft dolls. This interest in handcrafted activities continued whilst in high school. I selected Art as one of my main subjects to be examined.
At the University, I decided to specialize in Textiles. I also had the opportunity to study other handmade textile techniques including screen printing, weaving and batik making. At this point, we studied dyes and their application.
Of all the different types of Textile coloring methods, I was drawn to batik. There is a lot of unpredictability associated with what to expect when pulling fabric out of the dye bath. That is the fascination driving my passion for batik production. Every production comes with its own revelations. The result is that no two pieces coming out of the bath are the same.
The Steps Involved in the Art of Batik
Meg: Can you describe the steps involved in creating a piece of batik?
Edwina: Fabric, is first waxed or stamped with a preferred design motif which is dipped into the hot melted wax. When dry, the fabric is colored by immersing in a dye bath with the desired color. After some time, the fabric is taken out and rinsed. To add a second color, the fabric is dried and the above process of applying wax is repeated.
The final stage to reveal the design is dewaxing. The fabric is passed through boiling water which removes the wax. The fabric is rinsed in soapy water and dried.
Inspiration of Bamboo
The bamboo plant is one that fascinates me. I got information about a conference happening in Accra and there were requests for interested participants to apply to be part of it. Being of a curious mind, I applied and was invited to join. On the trip, we had the opportunity to learn about how it grows from the seedlings to mature plants. The inspiration for these designs came during that period.
After visiting a Bamboo plantation, I was inspired to abstract the shape of the bamboo against the bright clear sky.
I was also inspired to create a design that shows the bamboo against thick foliage. I used the color green to express the natural color I saw.
The Art of Batik Inspired by Life Experiences
Meg: You've said that you love to translate designs from life experiences. Can you share three designs and explain the circumstances that inspired them?
Edwina: Inspiration for my designs is drawn from everything and everywhere. This piece was inspired by teardrops. I was watching a little girl trying to get her mother's attention by crying. Tears swell up in the eye expressed as the oval shape and flows down the cheek. I chose blue as a way of ‘asking for calm’ in the situation.
Everyday Inspiration | Pipes in Transit
The second design was an inspiration from a truck ahead of me in traffic that had carried various diameters of PVC Pipes. Even though they had been arranged in layers with the bigger ones from the bottom up, there was this small corner of the pile that showed different sizes of the pipes.
The color was inspired by the colors around. The pipes were grey against the sunny afternoon sky.
The Creative Mind
Meg: Hearing how you were inspired by everyday encounters reminds me of a quote by Steve Jobs: ‘’Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” Do you see creativity that way?
Edwina: This statement is debatable. I believe he was talking about himself and the way he works more than trying to provide processes that creative people use in their work. I believe a creatively trained mind decipher things differently and will be able to say what the reasoning is behind every artistic production.
For example, in staring at the PVC pipes, I was creating something out of what I was seeing. Of course, I did not create the pipes but it served as inspiration for what my wondering mind decided to use it for.
One does not need to know how a design was created to appreciate it. So in the case of these PVC pipes, you would have still appreciated the design even though you may not have known how I arrived at it.
The Art of Wonder
Meg: How would you describe your creativity? Is part of its observation?
Edwina: As a creative person, my mind wonders all the time. Inspiration for me is everything and is found everywhere. For each production, there are endless possibilities in using themes or random inspiration. These inspirations come from nature, observation of activities, traditional or non-traditional symbols, shapes, artificial items, practically everything. My translations of these inspirations into the design are the difference between myself and any other creative person.
Meg: Were you encouraged to be creative growing up?
Edwina: Both my parents were artistic and even though they did not get trained to develop their talents, they used them as best as they could.
My father was an educationist but had the opportunity on a few occasions to illustrate some books for a couple of authors. My mother on the other hand was a self-taught fashion designer. I learned a lot from her, including my initial sewing skills and my interest in textile design. Both of them supported and encouraged me to stay creative.
Meg: Do you think everyone is creative?
Edwina: Everyone is a creative person. Our instinct as such helps us to choose different items in terms of color, design, etc when we enter a shop. Whatever speaks to us at the point of decision-making is our creative self.
Inspiration, Instinct and Color Drive Art of Batik
Meg: Tell me more about what your "process" is.
Edwina: From the source of inspiration, I make several drawings of what comes to mind. Then I decide on an arrangement. Then the next stage is color scheme for design which initially depends solely on what my theme colors are. Depending on who wants it, the arrangement and the color can be modified for the market. It could be for a fashion designer, wholesaler, or retailer.
Soul and Character of Handmade Textiles
Meg: There seems to be a shift away from mass-produced items and growing consciousness about the merits of buying handmade goods. Can you share your point of view on this?
Edwina: People are suddenly beginning to realize that there is a difference between the character and soul of a product handmade and one that is machine-made and mass produced. Whereas one feels warm and cuddly the other feels cold and uncaring. As a handmade products company, we have always felt that selling a product was given a bit of ourselves away.
I am glad that the world is starting to grow conscious of this too and hopefully appreciate the effort we put in for these products. Every handmade item carries with it, the being, the emotions, and a bit of the personality behind the production. It feels good for the producer that someone, who she will never meet, loves what she has had a relationship with. As a producer, we have always felt a connection between us and users. It feels good when you see how far the product has traveled to an end-user and that continues to inspire creativity to further produce more.
With respect to mass production, it’s not possible to feel the same way towards a product as it’s just a matter of switching on a machine and once it's ready, gets probably packaged by a robot.
Meg: You do a new collection every year. Can you explain your process in designing the collections?
Edwina: I actually do several collections in a year. I serve different clients in a year. They serve different markets with different tastes. New designs are being created per each production. As my fabrics are raw material to my customers, I have to have a wide range of themes and colors each time.
I take inspiration from everything and everywhere-scenes, objects, shapes, activities. It's endless. I draw using a pencil on my sketch pad, if satisfactory I transfer the motif onto the foam which will be used for printing.
A couple of yards are made for retail each measuring six yards and from these stock, one can order for wholesale as is or modified for client’s purpose or market.
The People of EdTex Batiks
Meg: How many people do you employ and what are their roles?
Edwina: I have eight employees with varied skillsets ranging from sewing, dyeing, stamping/printing, and administration. My production team are mainly women who benefited from my skills training.
Hannah Boi is the supervisor for the batik production and has acquired skills over the period for all the processes. She is reliable and supports new entrants to the company. She is also keen on imparting the knowledge she has acquired over the years.
Regina Kpenu is a trainee who has just joined Edtex about six weeks ago. She cannot wait to learn all the processes of the batik production. She has already learned the importance of quality control at the finishing and packing section where she has spent most of the time since she joined.
Meg: Who are your clients?
Edwina: My clients are mainly private label brands, fashion designers, and product developers who use the fabric for various products. For my home décor and fashion accessories, my clients are wholesalers and retailers. All of these groups are importers in the US, UK, Canada, Italy, and Kenya.
Rising to Challenges and Savoring Success
Meg: Running a business that is based on creative output has its own set of challenges. Can you share an experience that was particularly challenging and how you responded to it?
Edwina: I had started exporting small shipments and I had produced a beautiful shade of green fabric by mixing leftover colors. A buyer comes around and is ready to place a bulk order. I tried to repeat this piece and I never got it. I gave up trying. The order did not come through.
I responded to this by only showing pieces that can be repeated. Even though I mix leftover colors to use all the time with exciting results, they are only sold as retail pieces.
Meg: Can you share what you consider to be your biggest professional success to date?
Edwina: For me, every production is a professional success. In every step of batik production, the outcome in my estimation is a success. If I should single out one then that will be about giving of my skills in training.
As a social enterprise, it’s a joy to see changes in the lives of others. One such opportunity was when I received an International Award for “Project with Most Impact in the Community”.
I had given a trainer of trainer’s workshop to regional reps in Ghana who went back to their regions to train at the district levels. This also triggered down to several communities and the effect was that people were beginning to see well-designed and attractive batik products with varied designs and colors. It completely changed the look of fabrics in the country.
International Year of Creative Economy
Meg: The U.N. has declared 2021 the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. The main objectives are to raise awareness and promote cooperation to encourage creative industries. How is this relevant to you personally? Is there one specific change or initiative that could really be a useful catalyst for your business?
Edwina: The creative industries and therefore their economy can be broadly classified into the tangible (for example architecture and apparel) and the intangible (for example poetry and dance).
In looking at Ghana, industries in this economy may not be classified correctly to allow appreciation of their contribution to the Ghanaian economy. It is, therefore, a good idea to raise awareness of what the industry has to offer and it's needs in this period.
Edtex is a part of the creative economy of Ghana and that of the wider world. If the UN has declared 2021 as the international year of creative economy for sustainable development and is promoting the sector, it behooves all countries within the UN to do likewise. If Ghana is promoting the industry, Edtex is being promoted indirectly.