An interview with Esther Amate of Exmac Fabrics in Accra, Ghana
Sometimes you can know someone for years and yet not really KNOW them. I’ve been doing business with Esther for two years now and consider myself fortunate to finally have been able to interview her and learn more about her life. Esther is one of those people who’s full of surprises – a real gem of a person, in addition to being one of Ghana’s top batik artisans.
Esther was recommended to me as a batik artisan when I started Batiks for Life. There are a lot of people doing batik in Ghana – it’s a common handicraft – but Esther’s work really stands out. The technique is virtually the same no matter who’s doing it; it’s the artistic quality of the craft that differs from one artisan to the next. How Esther gets her batik to look the way it does is her trade secret and she guards it closely. Here’s a basic batik primer, in case you’ve never heard of this fabric printing technique before.
You start with plain white cotton fabric. Batik can also be done on silk or any other natural fabric, but cotton is commonly used in Ghana. Cotton fabrics can differ in quality, and Esther has a particular made-in-Ghana fabric that she prefers for its lovely sheen. Wax is applied to the fabric, often using a prepared stamp like this one:
And here’s what it looks like after waxing the fabric:
The fabric is then soaked in a dye bath, which dyes the background but leaves the waxed parts uncolored:
The dyed cloth will now be stretched out on the ground to dry thoroughly; then the wax is boiled off in big pots of boiling water. The fabric is then dried once more. At this point, more wax could be added with a different design, and the fabric dyed a different color. The possibilities really are endless!
Esther started creating batik over 20 years ago, and she has a beautiful story to tell of how she got into this art form:
“I was a single mother of three children. My parents were merchants, buying and selling in the market, and I started doing the same to support us. One day my sister came to me with bad news. Someone had stolen all my merchandise. I had nothing; I had no idea what I was going to do. I really struggled in those days, and it was a big blow. I prayed to God to help me. That day by chance I met a friend and told him what happened, and he gave me 50 Cedis (Ghana’s currency). Back then, 50 Cedis was a lot of money. I took half of it and bought some batik fabric and hung it over my fence for sale; right away I sold all of it and bought more, and sold that too. I was living close to the American Embassy, and I realized that the Americans liked batik. One day I was invited to take a workshop to learn how to make batik and I really enjoyed it. I started creating batiks, and to this day I am still inspired to try new techniques. I love it; it’s my art.”
From this small start, Esther has not only been able to employ up to 20 people in a small factory, but she owns a shop in Osu, one of Accra’s trendy tourist areas. “I get customers from all over the world who come back year after year to buy from me.” She showed me an article in a magazine published by one of London’s premier fabric dealers where her business, Exmac Fabrics, was featured. “Since the worldwide economy has declined, it’s been a challenge doing business though. I’ve gone from 20 workers to just a few. I’m ready to retire and turn over the business to my son and daughter-in-law.”
Esther speaks of the frustrations of being a business owner in Ghana – from the challenges of dealing with government corruption to some of the more negative aspects of the ultra-relaxed Ghanaian culture. “I try to be fair and helpful to my workers. I feed them three meals a day; sometimes I give them a place to sleep; I’ve just always been that way. But the same people will turn around and take advantage of my kindness. Sometimes they don’t even show up to work until 11 o’clock. It’s hard.”
Nonetheless, Esther has been able to use her talents and her business ability to build a comfortable life for herself and her children, which in Ghana today is a huge accomplishment. Her three grown children are all professionals and making their own way in the world. Her large family home in one of the outlying communities north of Accra is comfortable, with well-kept, spacious grounds. She has a lot to be proud of.
“My spirituality is very important to me. I’ve been a long-time devotee of Sai Baba, the Hindu guru. I pray at the temple twice a day, and do yoga. God will always provide.” Conveniently, the Hindu temple is just across the street from Esther’s shop in Osu.
Esther mentioned that she would like to put renewed effort into building her batik business back up to the level it was in the 1990s and leaving a legacy for her children to build on. I think that her story is reflective of a similar situation for many artisans who’ve experienced great success but who’ve had challenges related to the worldwide economic situation. One of the issues Ghana faces is the relentless influx of cheap, cheaply made Chinese products – including knock-off print fabrics based on Ghanaian patterns. While batik itself cannot be made any other way than by hand, a print that looks like batik can be. And while I’ve never seen a “fake” batik being sold in the markets, there’s a ton of “fake” cotton prints that sell for half the price of those produced in Ghana. The fabric sellers carry these fabrics, but funny enough, will try to talk customers out of buying them! It’s a similar situation as fighting a Walmart moving into your small community but then patronizing it because the prices are so much lower.
As Batiks for Life also continues to grow, we hope to bring more business Esther’s way so that her art will continue to flourish. Supporting a woman-owned family business is one of the ways we give back here in Ghana. Dara Ambriz, an up and coming fashion designer, supports Esther’s work by using custom-designed batiks from Exmac fabrics in her Caprice line. Batiks for Life facilitates her orders. You can read about Dara and her fashion design business, Hopeless + Cause Atelier, here.
Batik products are available from the Batiks for Life online shop.
We would be happy to facilitate your purchase of yardage of batik fabric from Esther and Exmac Fabrics – just drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interested in batik haute couture? Contact Dara at Designer@HopelessCauseAtelier.com
About the Author
Sara Corry, aka Abena Sara lives in the Eastern Region of Ghana, West Africa, close to the capital city, Accra. Tropical Africa is feeling like home now after nearly 30 years as a desert dweller! When not involved in business development, she can be found with camera in hand trying to photograph the beautiful native bird life. She writes a blog about daily life in Ghana, and is a contributor to a website devoted to wildlife conservation in Africa. She has a passion for travel and would jump on a plane to almost anywhere at a moment’s notice!