Joining Lisa from London, meet Aiwan Obinyan, director and producer of the award-winning documentary Wax Print. Aiwan is a musician, filmmaker, and streetwear designer as well as recent host of the "Lovers Rock" episode on the BBC podcast about Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series. Talk about talent! Together, Aiwan and Lisa unravel the hybrid history of wax prints. Also known as Ankara or African print, it's the 'fabric of diaspora' — find out why! Threading from Black intimacy to Black resistance, this episode hits all the heavy questions with an artful twist.
Find out more about the amazing Aiwan Obinyan:
Social: @aiwanobinyan (insta & Twitter)
Kenyan Christian Queer
Lovers Rock episode of the BBC Small Axe podcast
A peek at ONOMEN her clothing line launched In 2014
Also mentioned in this episode
The Lion's Share. The film about Solomon Linda the South African man who wrote the song, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
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Lisa Woolfork 0:15
Hello stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black Lives Matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation, so sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.
Hello everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host, Lisa Woolfork, and I am especially honored and grateful and delighted to announce my guest for today: Aiwan Obinyan. She is the — it's hard to summarize the fantasticness that is Aiwan. She was in a band and she played — she was a guitarist. She founded a streetwear line named after her mother. She recently hosted a beautiful episode in honor of the Small Axe film series done by Steve McQueen that talked about Black life in Britain in the 70s and 80s. And she's also the reasons I invited her here today. She is the producer, director, host, creator behind the wonderful print, the wonderful film, Wax Print. And that is what we're going to talk about today. I know that there's been a lot of discussion over the years about wax print fabrics, which it's important to note that Aiwan calls them wax print. She doesn't call them Ankara and she doesn't call them African fabrics. And as you'll learn there's a detailed reason why. So welcome so much to the program. I want to thank you for joining us from London today. Thank you.
Aiwan Obinyan 2:11
Thank you so much, Lisa, thank you for inviting me. It's really, I'm really honored and excited to have this conversation with you.
Lisa Woolfork 2:19
Thank you. So tell me a bit about your — I usually ask people about their sewing story. But would you say that you have a sewing story, you did create the streetwear line? Is that part of a sewing story? Or were you more interested in fashion and design and textiles, than so much garment construction and design?
Aiwan Obinyan 2:37
Oh, no, definitely. I have quite a few sewing stories. Obviously, I grew up in the UK. And in the education system at the time in primary school, which I think you guys would call...so primary school in the UK is from ages 4 to 11.
Lisa Woolfork 2:57
Elementary school we call it — we call it primary school, too, but we usually use the word elementary. So in primary school, is that when you started to sew?
Aiwan Obinyan 3:06
Yeah, because actually they used to teach you basic sewing skills. So they would teach you your little stitch styles. So there was like the cross stitch, which I remember clearly because we'd have to like, do that design. They'd give us a square of this in fabric. And then you had to do the cross stitch and then make a design from the cross stitch basically.
Lisa Woolfork 3:34
You did in this primary school?
Aiwan Obinyan 3:35
In primary school, yeah, it was something you did as part of the curriculum randomly.
Lisa Woolfork 3:38
Oh my, no, I think that's fantastic. Like for us, many of us who attend public schools in the US, we don't — if there is sewing, it's called Home Economics. It doesn't start until seventh or eighth grade, when people are closer to 13 or 14 years old. And then you might have it in high school for the last four years. And so the idea of learning how to cross stitch at like maybe age 7 or 8? That's impressive.
Aiwan Obinyan 4:05
Yeah, the UK is a land of craft, do you know what I mean? I mean, it's just a land of random little genetic crafts that you learn to do. Yeah, there are loads of those little skills that I was taught in school. And then of course, there's my grandma and my mom, who both were quite prolific sewers or seamstresses. So my grandma owned one of the largest sewing schools in southern Nigeria. And yeah, exactly — so she produced huge numbers of clothing for the government, for the local community. And she trained up many sewing girls as well. And then, of course, she taught my mom and then my mom passed on some of those skills to me.
Lisa Woolfork 4:50
And what was your attitude about it? I grew up in not — I can't say similar — but my grandmother sewed and my mother sewed and I wanted nothing to do with it. I just — I thought that I was a different person. I'm new and modern. And part of the story that you shared about yourself in the film was that you talked about some of your challenges adjusting to a predominantly white environment, or a school environment in other places during a time when there was so much anti-Blackness. And I wonder if that, if your grandmother and mother's sewing stories, like, passing this ancestral craft on to you...Was that something you claimed? Or was it something that you pushed aside?
Aiwan Obinyan 5:37
I think it's just a part of the culture. So in Nigerian culture it’s just what you do. You don't go to a shop and buy your clothes off the rail already made in terms of traditional clothing. It’s always you buy bales of fabric, and you get them made. So I think sometimes when things are just what you do, you just do them. And I quite liked the sewing machine, I was quite intrigued by the sewing machine. And I loved how you could just create something out of literally bits of cloth. So I was actually intrigued by it. Obviously, it died down a bit because music took over. And that's what I wanted to focus on. But I think making clothes is something that I really like. The idea of something custom that nobody else has, I think in this era of fast fashion where it's just clothing is just churned out and people just buy the same things from the same places, I find quite boring, actually.
Lisa Woolfork 6:40
Yes, and it's one of the things I was explaining, or something that I learned when I was speaking with a Nigerian seamstress once. And she was like, we don't just go to the store and buy patterns, you learn to make things that are customized and custom fit to your body. And I just thought that was such a beautiful example of what it meant, instead of what we have to do — that we don't have to — but what many of us do here, we buy a pattern in the store, the pattern was not designed for our bodies. And so then we have to make all these modifications and adjustments to get it to fit properly. And what I love about hearing your story, as well as the way that sewing works in Nigeria, was an almost like a decolonized sewing for me. What we have learned here in the US is you buy one of these big four patterns. And none of the measurements apply to your actual body. And it tends to pass on this message that here's the standard and you are deviant, and therefore you must modify to fit. And I'm like, that is not true at all. And what it is actually is that the same pattern blocks that were designed for 1950s white women don't fit everybody else.
Aiwan Obinyan 7:54
Lisa Woolfork 7:56
And that's something that we’re not really encouraged to think about. I think about it all the time. But it's just really interesting to know that there are people out in the world who approach their sewing with their body first. And then everything else fits around that as opposed to approaching it with the pattern first and then you have to modify everything to fit yourself. So I did love that section when you went back to see your family in the film. I think it was your — was it your uncle, when someone asked like, why do people keep sewing? Why do you think my grandmother did this? And my mother did this, and I do this? Why do you think? And he said, it's mental illness. I thought that was quite funny. Mental illness. Really? Why, what else? Why else would someone do such a thing? But it was so beautiful to see your grandmother's story and the legacy that she created by teaching so many girls and providing so much sewing and so much uniforms and all of these things that she did. And to see that captured in your documentary was really beautiful because it's such a — it's a preservation. It's like you are passing this, you are collecting this story to pass on to people all around the world. And I am very grateful for that. Do you imagine that there's any kind of connection — and I guess one of the things — this is like a very thorny, like all thrown together question, because I was thinking so much about your comments about intimacy in the Lovers Rock episode of Small Axe. And that, that through that music, that you were able to learn about, that people were able to learn about intimacy, Black intimacy, closeness and feeling. Do you think that there is some sense of feeling that can be generated by making something, by transforming a flat piece of fabric into a three dimensional garment meant to cover a person's body? Is there some way that there might be connections between that type of social intimacy in the creation process that we often see in sewing?
Aiwan Obinyan 10:05
Yeah, 100%. Anytime you make something, for someone, there's an element of intimacy. Because for you to make something for someone, you have to think specifically about that person, you have to think about what they like, and what they don't like. You have to think about the way their body is shaped and how to enhance certain things and maybe disguise other things, right? Just the process of making something for someone is intimate because of the conversations you have to have. The process of measuring someone for a new garment is a very intimate thing. Just that someone coming up and with the measuring tape and wrapping it around certain parts of your body that you wouldn't otherwise allow people into that personal space is a very intimate thing, right? And so I find that when human beings make for others — whether that's food, there's something about a home cooked meal, we talk about it being made with love, you know, mean? Yes, there’s always intimacy. And intimacy is not necessarily sexual. It's not necessarily sensual.
Lisa Woolfork 11:23
Oh, of course.
Aiwan Obinyan 11:24
Intimacy is just about the closeness of human beings, the understanding. A truly intimate relationship is one where there's understanding because you can actually have sex with someone, and there'll be no intimacy.
Lisa Woolfork 11:40
Aiwan Obinyan 11:41
And yet, you can have a deep conversation with someone where you feel understood, and they feel understood. And that is intimacy. And so if someone's making me a piece of clothing, and they've really understood what I need, what I need from that garment, in terms of my body, my aesthetic, then I have been understood. And so that is intimate. So I think there's many layers when it comes to intimacy in clothing. And of course, there's the fact that it's cloth on your human body, it doesn't get more intimate than that. There's not many things that get closer to our bodies, than the clothes that we wear.
Lisa Woolfork 12:11
That is so, that is so beautifully put. Absolutely. When you think about intimacy as a form of not just physical proximity, but emotional proximity. That is, I think that's a beautiful way to think about intimacy, as well as the kind of feeling of trust —
Aiwan Obinyan 12:30
Lisa Woolfork 12:31
— required that you can trust when someone's wrapping the tape around your body. And when you wrap it around your own body, you're taking the measure of yourself.
Aiwan Obinyan 12:41
Lisa Woolfork 12:42
But not in a way that is, like, quantitative, it's like evaluating you necessarily. It's really about a way of embracing and saying, This is who you are, I see. And since who you are, and now I want to create something that is going to work for you, promote you, support you. And it might sound a bit strange to think about clothing in this way. But everyone has these pieces that they'll put on and feel great in. And then there's other garments you wear that you don't feel great. And the ones that you don't feel great in are usually, are usually those that won’t enhance your body, that won't enhance your vision of yourself. And that the idea of custom clothes being a piece of that, I really love that. I wanted to think — I want to shift a little bit to talking about your streetwear. And do you see a connection between your streetwear collection and your own music, since you are also a musician? And so I tend to think about streetwear...Hello, you tell me, how do you define streetwear as opposed to any other set of aesthetic practices around clothing? What does streetwear do that perhaps other forms of fashion does not do?
Aiwan Obinyan 13:56
Well, yeah, I think one of the best ways to answer that question is to come back to my first love, which is music. And the first type of music that really gripped me, and essentially has followed me through the rest of my life is hip hop. And if you think about hip hop had its beginnings and what it was in the beginning, it was a voice for the voiceless. It was the voice of young Black people in the projects, in the ghettos of America, who weren't given a voice in the political sphere, weren't really given a voice within the church. And so they created this music in a society that also didn't provide them the space to learn traditional instruments.
Lisa Woolfork 14:39
Aiwan Obinyan 14:40
They couldn't afford to go and learn the trumpet or the trombone or learn string arranging techniques, or Conservatoire. So these kids took what they had.
Lisa Woolfork 14:53
Aiwan Obinyan 14:54
Which was their voices to beatbox, their turntables to get samples from old recordings and loop them and scratch and then created the genre called hip hop. And that kind of, that came from the streets. But then with hip hop came what we now know as streetwear. And again, it's this idea of, you don't want — the society doesn't want to see us, right. It refuses to see us, it refuses to see the conditions that we live in, it refuses to acknowledge our existence. So we're going to force you to see us. You're going to not only hear us through our music, but you're going to see us with our fashion that is louder and larger than life itself. We are gonna wear big chains, we are going to wear big hoop earrings, we are going to wear your designers that we can't necessarily afford, but we're going to take your logos, and we're going to put it on stuff and we're going to wear it bigger than anybody else would wear it. We're going to wear that filter, we're going to wear the big shades, we're going to wear — we're going to reinterpret things. We're going to take a fisherman's hat, and it's going to become the new style of — we're going to take Timberlands, which is really a traditional kind of middle class rugged outdoor boots designed for going into rough terrain, and we're going to reconfigure it and it's going to become the footwear of people who have to tread the rugged terrain of brutal streets. This is how we fight out in the streets, is with our Timberlands on. Do you know what I mean? And so for me, that's what streetwear is. It's, it's a visual, it's a signal to a world that refuses to see us and says you're gonna see us anyway.
Lisa Woolfork 16:39
Yes, it's a demand.
Aiwan Obinyan 16:41
It's a demand. Yeah.
Lisa Woolfork 16:43
It's a demand. And it's a site of resistance. And I know, for example, I have two young, teenage 17 and 22 year old sons, and they both love hoodies. And we all know that hoodies have become very loaded here in the United States after the vicious and unjust murder of Trayvon Martin. And one of the things that, that the boys have told me why they like hoodies, or — they didn't tell me but I deduced this — is that it helps them not have to wear a hat. And they also feel like they're creating their own world. Like when you have your hood up, and especially if you have your headphones on and your hood up. You can close out the world. Yeah, it's similar to the Timberlands right? That you can face these rough streets, that institutionalized racism, from all of these forms of bigotry that impact the lives of Black people. And what you're wearing is like you're suited up. And even if your battle isn't a physical battle, you're not necessarily brawling in the streets. But you have created for yourself a shield, you've created for yourself a cocoon, a place that allows you to have your own space, wherever you go.
Aiwan Obinyan 17:50
Lisa Woolfork 17:51
And I think that's something that's really important. And that's one of the things I noticed when I looked at some of your streetwear collection, with the bold colors, and the looseness, and the, the richness of the pieces that you put together. And it seemed like this is so suitable for the social terrain of Black life. And that, I really appreciate your approach to streetwear in that way. So thank you so much for sharing that. Now, are you playing a lot of music these days?
Aiwan Obinyan 18:28
I haven't been, because I've been focusing mostly on building my business, touring my films, and doing a lot of podcasting work. But I'm, one of my focuses for this year is to do more music. And hopefully I get to do that. We're now in a national lockdown. So maybe this will be the thing that will propel me to do what I always want to do, which is make music.
Lisa Woolfork 18:57
Yes. It's also, it seems to me that it'd be very hard for you to settle on just one thing when you have so many skills and talents. You know, that you've done, you do things so well. You did the music beautifully. Your streetwear collection is awesome. And this film, Wax Print, is beautiful. We're going to, we're going to take a very quick break y'all. And when we come back, we're going to talk about Wax Print. It is a fantastic film. I saw it twice. I arranged to have it shown here in my community and I urge everybody to do the same. It will transform your understanding. So stick around.
Lisa Woolfork 20:02
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Lisa Woolfork 21:15
Welcome back, everyone. You are listening to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And I'm talking today with Aiwan Obinyan. She is the director, creator of Wax Print. This is a gorgeous documentary that was released in 2018, and was nominated for the African Movie Academy Award for Best Diaspora Documentary. And with good reason. It is an absolutely gorgeous film, a journey from London to Nigeria to the Netherlands, to France, looking at — I think you went to, oh my gosh, what is that called? — Afropunk in France, and asking people their thoughts and opinions about what we at least, what I often hear in the States described as African fabric. So can you give me an idea about what made you start to do the film, what sparked the idea of discussing wax print?
Aiwan Obinyan 22:09
Originally, the film was supposed to be a short promotional film for my customers of Onomen, which was my clothing line at the time. And I just wanted to give them a little bit of background of our process for how the clothes are made, ethics, the actual textiles themselves, and a little bit of the history behind it. And I thought it would be really quite simple. And so I thought, I'm going out to Afropunk so I may as well do some shooting out there. Because I know that when I get out there, there'll be all these wild Afropunks. And they'll be wearing their wax print inspired clothing, and showing how the fabric can be reinterpreted in different ways. So I went out there to shoot. And essentially, as I was asking questions, it felt like there were more questions than answers. And so as I came back from Afropunk, I realized that I had a couple of choices. I could either forget the questions that had been posed, and just still make a short five minute promotional film, stick it on the website and that's that. Or I could follow it through to its logical conclusion, and actually go out there and find out what the real history is of wax print fabrics. Me being the nerd that I am, I chose the latter. And then two years later, I had this over 50 to 60 hours of footage.
Lisa Woolfork 23:36
Aiwan Obinyan 23:37
And I condensed that down to the 97 minute feature length documentary that you refer to.
Lisa Woolfork 23:44
It's really amazing. And I believe that I could, I totally could see how your 97 minute film could come from 50 or 60 hours, because it feels so comprehensive. All the things you do, talking with scholars like Kwame Otu who I told you I know him in real life, because we are colleagues at the University of Virginia. And so I was like, I sent him a screenshot, like “I saw you on this film, you are amazing!” And so it is all that you were able to do when to organize and to tell this story. Before we get into some of the details of the film, I wanted to ask you, what did you find the most surprising? I know that you started as you said, by having this be one thing — this is going to go on the website, it’s going to promote the streetwear line and give context about how we produce our work ethically, etc, etc. And then it went from that to this process, to this project that becomes award nominated. And it's so meaningful to, to teach as a film to generations of people about the origins and implications of this fabric. What was that the most surprising part or was there something else that you discovered throughout your research?
Aiwan Obiyan 24:59
I didn't think it was going to hit the weight here, when it came out, honestly. I actually didn't have much of a plan for how I was going to release the film because I had never properly released a film in that way before in terms of, like, film festivals and stuff. So the whole process was like a very steep learning curve, and a very expensive one as well. So I didn't expect that at all. And when I saw how the guys in the United States embraced the film, the guys out in Japan, embraced the film. It just bowled me over. All the Q&A's that I've attended, all the different places I've been able to visit, and speak on this subject, even till today, it's really quite overwhelming the way the film, you know, was received. And I'm literally just deeply grateful for everything for everyone that's received the film, people like yourself who watch the film, love the film, reach out and tell me, invite me on to shows like this to talk about the film. It's just amazing.
Lisa Woolfork 26:03
The film is just amazing. And I think for me, who as an African American, I see this fabric and I've always seen this fabric as something that is African. As a way to address my African roots, to promote African pride, to promote the African part in the Black part of my identity, as well as seeing that it's used all over the world also was a way to plug that in. But I didn't have all of the information. I knew, for example, that every time on the selvage, it said ‘Hollandais’. I knew it said it was Dutch. And I was like, how is this Dutch? Why is this Dutch, who owns this? And I think what I've noticed, and what I gathered from the film is that this all started with colonialism. That is one of the reasons that we have this fabric today. And something that I was able to sketch out from your film was almost like a triangle trade, which is also rather sinister, because a triangle trade is something we also use to describe the transatlantic slave trade. But it seemed like it goes from the Netherlands, to Ghana to Indonesia, or maybe starting in Indonesia, then going to the Netherlands and then going on to Ghana and Nigeria. That whole process seems to me, I don't know, it just feels like something, like a hybrid of all three of those cultures. But I cannot forget that this is also propagated with violence. And so it becomes so difficult to think about the Dutch going to Indonesia, copying what the Indonesians were doing, and trying to mass market it and sell it back to them.
Aiwan Obinyan 27:40
Lisa Woolfork 27:41
And of course, the Indonesians are like, “why would we want our stuff from you?” And then the Dutch having to find a new market for their quote, unquote, their creation. And receiving input with the different designs, that was something that I found so amazing about your visit to the Vlisco factory was the library, the archive they have of all these prints that they own the trademarks for. I don't know, that just really — it struck me as this really interesting hybrid of all three of these regions, but also a strange mix of colonialism, and capitalism, and ethics. And that was something that your work made me think about a lot. So I remember at the end of the film, you were saying that you don't wear wax print anymore, and you don't — I guess maybe we could go back to the first question is, why call the film Wax Print, as opposed to African fabric or African print? Or Ankara? What are you trying to teach us by calling it Wax Print?
Aiwan Obinyan 28:52
So the, the main reason why I didn't call it Ankara — because we do call it Ankara, that's what I grew up, knowing that it was called Ankara. But the reason why I didn't call it that is because the capital of Turkey is also called Ankara. And there was no way the title of my film was going to compete with a capital city of a country on Google. So I would never rise through the rankings because capital cities of geographical locations trump everything else. So I didn't call it Ankara for that reason. I didn't call it African print or African fabric. A, I don't think that's a great title. And B, I — it's not African. What I like about the title Wax Print is that it speaks to the technique, which is essentially what it is. It's a way of printing cloth using the wax resist method, right. And so it clearly defines what it is. And it's also a term that people, at least over here in the UK and in Europe, are familiar with as well. So it speaks to two things, the technique and the type and style of the fabric.
Lisa Woolfork 30:09
Yes, I really love how you're like, “I'm going to do a Google keyword search. And I am not going to call my fabric this, my film this, because no one will ever see it.” That is so clever. And you also taught me that Ankara is a capital in Turkey, which I did not know. So thank you for that lesson. Now, I was thinking about, we have a lot of debates here in the US about who can wear wax prints? Is it something that's appropriate for non-Black people to wear? Is it appropriate for even people who are not African and are Black Americans like myself to wear? And so there's all this, so much, it seems to be gatekeeping? Which is very interesting when we think about where this fabric comes from. And I remember you saying in the film that you no longer wear wax prints? Can you talk a bit about why and do you find it okay for white people to wear it? Do you have — did you lose your feeling of possessiveness, or not possessiveness — do you feel like there's no need for you to claim wax print as part of your own kind of cultural identity performance? Because you find it inauthentic? I guess I'm just curious to understand more about why you no longer wear wax print, and what that might, how that might help us to understand who is quote unquote, authorized, to wear it or know.
Aiwan Obinyan 31:37
In the film, the conclusion that I draw towards the end, is that this is a hybrid cloth. It's a cloth that comes from three main sources, it comes from the immense and intricate designs of Indonesia. And they took the batikan process to a whole new level, when you see their batiks it's just ridiculously crazy. And it's intricacy and creativity. And then of course, it's the technological innovations of Europe for the mechanization of that batik, which meant that instead of one batik taking a year to make, which is what it sometimes would take, now they could churn out thousands in the same amount of time. And then, of course, with the Nana Benz's in the markets in Africa, these women were reinterpreting those Indonesian designs, and they were coming up with their own designs and their own colorways, which is why wax prints are so colorful. They're so bright, they're so vibrant. And there are certain motifs that recur time and time again. And they're often linked to specific cultural moments. New presidents coming into power, new fashions, the arrival of the CD, the arrival of the roller skate, Michelle Obama landing an airport and then a wax print being named Michelle Obama's Handbag. So this is the sort of creative inventiveness of the African market as led by the Nana Benz’s at the time, right. So the co-op itself is not one thing. It's a hybrid of three things. And so in the film, I draw that conclusion. And actually, in the film, I don't actually — I'm actually wearing wax print in the film.
Lisa Woolfork 33:23
Aiwan Obinyan 33:24
And at that point, I'm actually still okay with wax print. I think what what's happened is, over the years of touring the film, particularly in the States, and doing Q&A's and having discussions with African Americans across America, and having certain discussions with the Japanese audiences, and even here in the UK, I came to the conclusion that for me right now, it doesn't make sense for me to wear wax prints. For the simple reason that it doesn't contribute to the generational wealth of African and Black people around the world. If you take the profits that Vlisco has made over the last 100 plus years, I don't think that they would be able to prove that the bulk of that money has gone towards the generational wealth of African children. It's gone really to the generational wealth of Dutch children. Now, obviously, every country has their prerogative, they can do whatever they want. It's our decision as Black people to decide where we spend our money.
Lisa Woolfork 34:28
Aiwan Obinyan 34:29
And I think one of the things that is important to do is to spend our money in places that benefit our community.
Lisa Woolfork 34:34
Aiwan Obinyan 34:35
Every other community does that and does it really well and without any guilt, or any apology, and we should do the same. So my focus over the last year or so has just been to focus on paying for, investing in, and using textiles where I can say that the bulk of the profits go back to the generational wealth of Black people in the continent, or should I say on the continent, and in the diaspora. And so that's where I'm at with wax prints.
Lisa Woolfork 35:06
That, it's such a beautiful and powerful explanation. Because one of the things I noticed in your film was that some of, some of the white experts that you were talking to wear the print. So I think there was a professor, I believe.
Aiwan Obinyan 35:24
Oh yes, Professor Christopher Richards.
Lisa Woolfork 35:25
Yes, I think he was in a park and he had on this really lovely shirt. And I was like, it's really lovely. It's really interesting. And, and I'm thinking, “gosh, it feels so awkward to me.” But the more you think about it, this, the fabric is far more Dutch, in terms of how it’s manufactured and mechanized than it is anything else. And so I like this. And that's exactly what I had drawn. I love that phrase to use in a film about the hybrid of these three cultures coming together, which sounds like a beautiful cultural mix and story. But when you think about the capitalist aspects of it, and the colonial aspects of it, that all of that money has to go somewhere. And it usually is not diverted to Black folks. And so it's really interesting to look at this fabric that I have always thought of as African fabric, and to realize that it's not as African as I think it is. And, and I think what appeals to me, of course, is the contributions that the Nana Benz’s have made to designing the fabric that Black women in Nigeria and Ghana have made to, to contribute. It's like they are contributing the content, the context, the vitalness, the vitality of the fabric, that then gets housed in a library in the Netherlands. Because that Vlisco factory looked massive. And then the huge rollers that they use to roll out the fabric — but I think the thing that was most shocking to me was the library. I'm a super nerd as well. And so I love libraries and card catalogs, and all that kind of thing. And so to see that Vlisco had thousands and thousands of designs...like I think you chose one, maybe based on your favorite number or your birthday. And it was peacocks and I was like, I love peacocks — those are my favorites! And it's, but that I might buy the fabric and put it on my body and make this gorgeous dress, which I have done many times. But when I think about who owns the print that I'm work—, that I'm wearing, it is either from Vlisco or most likely, in my case, knockoff of Vlisco that was manufactured by someone else. And so it does put a different spin on who can wear what. And it also reveals something also about the film was how detailed it was in terms of all of the copying, right. So on the one hand, it seemed funny to me that Vlisco is worried about protecting its intellectual property. On the other hand, didn’t they also get that idea in these designs from people for whom they did not renumerate? I don't know how much they pay people to make these designs, but they are housed in a Dutch library, and not in a Nigerian library, not in a Ghanaian library. And so I don't know, that does that seem odd to you that they would so viciously, not viciously — viciously is the wrong word — they had every right, of course, to protect their property. But it's hard for me to think about it as their property and still love it as much as I do. What do you, what do you think that might come from this idea of the need for these copies? And how they get used in the markets in Nigeria and Ghana? Because you talked a bit about that in the film?
Aiwan Obinyan 38:52
Well, I don't — if I understand your question correctly, I think at the end of the day, copyright and copyright protection is a function of capitalism, right? It's about defining ownership. And who gets to exploit the owned intellectual property, right? So it's rooted in, in capitalism. Of course, the designs are going to be housed in a Dutch library, because in that partnership, if you can even call it that, you have to pay attention to the power dynamics. If you are the big manufacturer from Europe at a time where you are also the colonial rulers, then there is nobody to say to you, actually, excuse me, that's my design, or I actually contributed to that design. A lot of these people wouldn't have even understood or known copyright law. I was watching a documentary yesterday on Netflix, and it was called The Lion's Share. And it was about that song. The song from The Lion King, doo doo doo doo doo.
Lisa Woolfork 40:00
Oh yeah, “in the jungle…”.
Aiwan Obinyan 40:03
“In the jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”, right? So the actual creator of that was a guy called Solomon Linda from South Africa. And he, he sung in a choir that he formed. And one of the songs that they created was ‘Mbube’, which then became ‘Uyimbube’, or wherever in the States. “Uyimbube, uyimbube, uyimbube...”, right? So he actually wrote that song. And that song ended up, through numerous things, but it ended up — the copyright being held by a guy called George Weiss. And then Disney obviously then exploiting that in The Lion King, The Lion King the musical and also The Lion King the cartoon. All the while, Solomon Linda, in South Africa, is penniless. And he has four daughters, and they, too, are penniless, right. And his song went on to make over $60 million. And it's still making money because of course, The Lion King had a live action reboot only in 2019, right?
Lisa Woolfork 41:13
Aiwan Obinyan 41:14
So, and this is because he didn't know, he didn't know. How is a guy from South Africa gonna know about the copyright laws of America back in? Whenever he wrote the song, I think it was, I don't know, the early 1900s or mid 1900s? Do you know what I mean? How is he going to know about those things? So I always say, when it comes to us as Black people, knowledge is power, right? We have to know as much as possible about what's going on in the world, both in terms of legal, in terms of politics, in terms of economics, in terms of our social interactions, in terms of our mental health, knowledge is power. The more — the less people can pull the wool over your eyes, the less they can exploit you and steal from you and keep you in the dark whilst making the lion's share of the profits. Knowledge is really important. And I think it's important that we wake up every day seeking knowledge, because as a people, unfortunately, because of the things that have happened in the past, whether that's the transatlantic slave trade, whether that's colonialism...or even just living in these societies, where the educational systems are pretty much set against us. They're set against anyone basically, who isn't middle class to upper class. They're set against the working classes, they’re set against poor white people, they're set against poor Black people, they’re set against Black people full stop. We have to find alternative ways to get the education that we need. And thankfully, we live in an age, the Information Age now, where there is a lot of information available to us through things like YouTube, and Udemy, and Lynda, and all of these other platforms. But it really is on us now to start learning because we've got a lot of ground to make up. Because all of the things that have happened, whether we like it or not, it has set us back. And so our focus as a people every day has to be learning. So that we don't find ourselves in some of the situations that have befallen a lot of our, our great artists, our great sports people, our great speakers, our great activists. So yeah, I guess that's my, my thoughts on that.
Lisa Woolfork 43:27
I think it's, I think it's a beautiful thought. Because what we're dealing with is because of the way that structural racism is imbricated in our, in a variety of societies around the world, like your experience with the Thatcherism in the 1980s is very similar to the Reaganism for Black people in the 1980s. It was like they were like evil fucking twins. Can I just say that? They really were, they absolutely were in, as you mentioned in your podcast episode about the Lovers Rock episode, that, you know, that Thatcher is saying things like that Britain is going to be overrun by the Blacks, and that England and the British have every right to be frightened that the Negroes are going to come and take their shit. And I know a lot of folks and scholars have said things like, Hey, we are here, because you were there. That if Britain didn't feel like it had to have an empire that the sun never set on, it wouldn't have come to all these countries and taken our resources, and then somehow got want to see us, quote unquote, back home. So —
Aiwan Obinyan 44:32
Just, just to — sorry to interrupt there. Just to interrupt there — it’s just this, and it’s so silly. This is the reason why I made the mention of poor, white, working class people is because that statement that she made is absolute BS. Because even today in the 21st century, Black people only make up 3% of the population. So we, we couldn't have made up more than that back then. So it was propaganda to get poor, white, working class people to focus their anger on the wrong people. Because actually 3% of the population cannot do that much damage economically and socially, to 80% percent of the population. It's an impossibility, right? However, if you focus your anger on the Black man on the street, you're now not looking to the elites, who are systematically, as Thatcher was called — Margaret Thatcher, the milk snatcher. So she removed free milk from elementary age children in schools. So they're systematically eroding your communities, destroying the job market, increased unemployment, reduced benefits, increased poverty, and it's just, and you're focusing on the Black man in the street is just ridiculous. And race has been used time and time again, to ensure the poor people don't get together. Because percentage wise, there's more poor people than there are rich people. And if they get together across racial lines, across gender lines, that's a lot of angry people.
Lisa Woolfork 46:09
Aiwan Obinyan 46:10
And the world will actually change.
Lisa Woolfork 46:12
Exactly. No, you're absolutely right. And what you're describing has been used in this country, since we were a fucking country. And this is something like, in terms of the way that the Civil War played out, the idea of the American South — I'm, I live in the south, I'm a southerner — was, was clearly divide and conquer. For us, it was the plantation class, the owners of the plantations, driving a wedge between poor whites and enslaved Blacks, because there was a rebellion that happened in the 17th century. And so what they did was to create laws that basically authorized what Toni Morrison describes as authorized chaos. And it allows white people advantages. So a Black man could not look a white man in the eye. This was some kind of law, it was actually a law. And that Black people could not own guns. All of this was designed to give whiteness, regardless of social position, power over Black people. And by creating an underclass, even though white people might have been just as poor and destitute, what they had was the weapon of whiteness. And that was a way to make them feel better. And they did this at the, in the late 19th century, with the rise of the Civil War. They did this with Nixon in the 1980s, I guess when Nixon was president, in the late 60s. And they've done this with Reagan, like they — this is, this is a page out of the white supremacist’s handbook. And I think there's a lot of folks, at least in this country who are pretty uncomfortable with the phrase ‘white supremacy’. I use it all the time. Because for me, white supremacy isn't just like the National Front, and white supremacists marching in the street. It's this belief that somehow white people are supposed to have things that Black people can't have. It's as simple as that. And so this notion that we need to now address the things that we have lost. And it's interesting that what you've taught us is that wax print is not something that we've necessarily lost, because it didn’t belong to us in the way that we might have had the emotional attachments. And that was something that was, I thought was really fascinating and so well done in the film, when you go to Afropunk, and you're asking people all around the world, Is wax print African? And you ask the experts, you asked the Black folks who were at the event, and they had a variety of different answers. One of the white women who was a historian in the Netherlands says, No, I don't see it as African. And then one of the answers that I really agree with actually is that she called it a diasporic fabric. That it might not have belonged, quote, unquote, to anyone who is from these regions, beyond the Dutch, which own the copyrights and trademarks on it, but that it's also a fabric of diaspora. And because of the weight, of the ubiquity of it, and the way that it's worked in terms of its symbol, it seems something that's particularly suited to diaspora. Which made me feel like as an African American, like, Oh, this is why I like this so much, because it's telling me or it's connecting me to the continent. And that was, that's the attachment that I have always made to it. And I think I might even still feel that way. Because maybe I'm not getting ready to loosen my, loosen my attachments to this because I do love the designs and they're really beautiful. But I wonder about is, do you see there being any point in making a reclamation or an attachment for diasporic Black people to this fabric? I think as you've explained, the investment, whose money, who does it enrich? Who does it enrich? It financially enriches the Dutch holding company. But I wonder if there's something to be said for appreciating the beauty of the fabric and the story that people tell when they transform it. When they transform that fabric through the, through the creative process we discussed earlier, do you see that in any way as a way to mitigate the harm or the damage that the colonial process has created with this fabric?
Aiwan Obinyan 50:31
When it comes to wax print, if you want to appreciate it, and you want not — I'm not talking about you specifically. But just in general, if people want to appreciate the fabric and wear the fabric because it makes them feel good, then who am I to say that they shouldn't? I think we live in such trying times that my thing is whatever makes you feel good, as long as it's not harming anyone, do whatever you need to do to feel good. Because times are tough, right? From another perspective, though, I think that there are just so many beautiful textiles that are African. And they come from Africa, and they are still being made by Africans. And when you purchase these textiles, you are contributing to the current wealth of Africans in Africa and in the diaspora and the generational wealth. And like I said before, knowledge is power. And one of the things that many other communities do really well is thinking ahead. Their thinking is the long game for them. Right? It's, what are my grandchildren and my great grandchildren going to have? What will they be able to use from my existence on this planet, to benefit them and their children. And so I'm trying to tap into that mindset more. So I tried to factor that into the purchases I make as much as is humanly possible. Like I say, if wax print makes you feel good, it's still got African roots. The Nana Benz's were important in that. They may not be anywhere near what they were. But they were a part of that. And the designs we see are there because of African creativity and ingenuity. But I guess for me, I'm thinking more in terms of the long game.
Lisa Woolfork 52:27
Yes, I totally hear that. I hear you saying this is about legacy. You know, that which you inherited, and that which we leave behind. And I think that when you talk about knowledge is power, it's important to acknowledge that where this fabric comes from, how it's produced, who owns it and benefits financially. And I think that is really an important way to think through this. Also, I really love your reminder that there are African fabrics being made today right now by African people who are, as Kwame Otu said in the film, who are being devalued because it's seen as not modern. Or not new, not produced in Europe, which has some kind of sheen to it, and illusion to it because of our indebtedness to white supremacy. And so that is another, I think that's such a beautiful reminder that if you want to buy African fabric, you can certainly do that, because it does go to contribute to different legacies. And at the same time, just don't imagine that when you're buying a wax print that it is going to benefit folks on the continent, because that's not what it's actually doing. So that was a really powerful lesson. Tell me, I want, what are you doing next? What do you have on the horizon? What are some of the things you're really excited about?
Aiwan Obinyan 53:48
Yeah, I had a crazily busy 2020. And one of the things was my film. My second film, Kenyan, Christian, Queer, came out in July.
Lisa Woolfork 54:00
Oh wonderful, congrats!
Aiwan Obinyan 54:01
Thank you. So that's been doing the rounds. And I guess that will continue on. I obviously did the Small Axe podcast, which I'm very proud of.
Lisa Woolfork 54:12
It’s a beautiful episode. It's a really beautiful episode. I have to tell you that I listened to it and I have not even seen the series yet. And so you said that Lover’s Rock was your favorite episode, and I was doing some research. And other folks put that down. It's like number two of their favorites, or number three. And I'm like, that's because they haven't listened to her podcast. So you had that podcast. And so what else is next after that?
Aiwan Obinyan 54:34
So then, so this year, I'm trying to take it a little bit easier than I did because at one point I was working like 15, 16 hours a day in 2020. So I've got a couple of things coming up. So I'm doing some sound design on a BBC film called Buttercup which is written by a young Black girl called Dorcas Seb. And she's just a phenomenal writer and she's written this amazing — it was started as a theater play but due to lockdown the BBC have given them what they need to turn it into a film. And I'm going to be the sound designer on that. So I'm excited because it gets me back into sort of musical kind of sound world, which is where I want to be in 2021. So I'm working on that. And then I'm just working on some of my own material. And then of course, I've got my clients who I do podcasts for, gal-dem. So they have a podcast called grown up with gal-dem, which is a podcast about the stories of growing up in the UK as people of color. And it's a really powerful podcast, we've interviewed people like Tiwa Savage, Michaela Cole.
Lisa Woolfork 55:37
Aiwan Obinyan 55:38
Yeah, and it's all up there. And so we are starting the next series. And I'm excited about what we've got coming up. Some of the guests look amazing.
Lisa Woolfork 55:47
Oh, that's great. I will be sure to include links to all this in the show notes, the podcast, your PBC episode, as well as the one that you're working on now. Of course, I'll include information about your Kenyan, Christian, Queer film, as well as of course, the Wax Print. Thank you so much, Aiwan, for joining us today. This has been such a fantastic program today because of you. Thank you.
Aiwan Obinyan 56:12
Thank you so much, Lisa. I really appreciate it.
Lisa Woolfork 56:28
You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women's Stitch, the sewing group where Black Lives Matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at blackwomen firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month, you can help support the project with things like editing transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews. But for those who do for those that have a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us at the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.