Osogbo turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I had just had a monumental experience at the Osun festival (article coming soon) and the excitement from that had overflowed into curiosity. I was particularly interested in the beautiful batik outfits and I just had to see firsthand how they were made.
Textiles are a big part of Nigerian festivals and what I saw in the diversity, the patterns, styles, and the colors was nothing short of works of art and so we made sure to stop at the Nike Arts Batik factory on our way out of the ancient city.
A lot of sources claim that batik comes from the island of Java in Indonesia. This style of making fabrics has been a staple of the culture and the identity of Indonesians for centuries. It's been identified as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and the Indonesian government has taken active steps to safeguard, transmit, promote and develop the process of making batik. They even added it to the school curriculum at all levels of education.
Batik has since been appropriated by people from all over the world. Countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, China and many African countries have adopted the technique in the most elegant forms. Here in Nigeria, it’s role as a symbol of cultural identity and artistic expression can't be measured and it is widely produced throughout the country and particularly in Yoruba regions.
When we got to the factory - a tidy open air compound with neatly demarcated sections - we were warmly welcomed. The manager, Afeez, was kind enough to give us a tour while he explained their process.
Batik is a dyeing technique where patterns are drawn on the sheets with liquid wax. The dye is not able to penetrate the parts of the fabric that has wax in them, so batik makers are able to create all kinds of patterns. The entire process is done completely by hand and no two finished works are identical.
Big chunks of wax are melted on kerosene stoves and a pointed sponge soaks up and creates the lines and shapes. The cloths are taken to the dye pits and soaked in a mixture of dye color, caustic soda and hydrosulfate until all parts of the cloth absorbs the color. They are then immersed in hot water and the wax re-melts and floats to the top of the water, ready to be reused.
It was interesting to note that the indigo dye comes from a plant. Mr Afeez brought our attention to a medium sized shrub growing in the background. He made a paste from the leaves of the plant and rubbed it into my palm. After a few minutes, the spot started to darken from being oxidized. You can get indigo dye from a variety of plants, most of which are easy to grow.
It wasn't until I was typing this that I realized I had no idea where colors other than indigo came from. If you know, please leave it in the comments section.
Anyway, once the material is free of the wax, the excess dye is washed out and the cloth is cleaned, dried and rolled up, ready to be applied in many many different ways.
I was pleased to learn that Nike Art's offers workshops for people who would like to learn about this process. It is an amazing skill to have and I myself have begun imagining all the things I can make with batik so maybe I'll take a class. My friends purchased a few yards of cloth, we exchanged pleasantries with Mr Afeez and his team and left the city full of life and full of color.