Malian Bogolanfini and Cultural Identity

By LIZ HAGER

Malian bogolanfini cloth (courtesy African Textiles)

A recent visit to the “Rhythm and Hues” exhibit at The (San Francisco) Museum of Craft and Folk Art stimulated me to think about the ways in which textiles—their motifs, patterns, methods of production, even the articles of clothing fashioned from them—define identity. Bogolanfini, the traditional “mud” cloth of Mali and a centerpiece of the exhibit, is an excellent reminder of the mutations to cultural identity that occur when the local traditions of a “developing” (though decidedly not primitive) country collide with the modern-world (i.e. Western) aesthetic.

Bogolanfini is generally defined as the cloth made by Bamana women in the rural areas of Mali, according to a centuries-old, labor-intensive dyeing process that requires local materials and specific methods. It is fashioned into specific tribal garments.

Narrow strips of plain fabric are woven (usually by men) and pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth; the cloth is then dyed in multiple baths of organic material (n’gallama leaves). The “negative” spaces around the desired patterns are painstakingly painted with mud, which reacts by turning those areas of the cloth black.

Contemporary bogolanfini (Courtesy Indigo Arts Gallery)

These geometric motifs are the most important element of bogolanfini. The patterns constitute a language that communicates tribal narratives. Traditionally, only the female producers were fluent in this symbolic language, passing it down carefully from generation to generation. In recent decades, the meaning of the bogolanfini vocabulary has been more widely disseminated. Even so, its complex iconography—which refers to objects, animals, historical events, the mythologies of the tribe, and proverbs—cannot be fully “read” by outsiders.

In the Bamanan society, bogolanfini traditionally is fashioned into special garments—tunics worn by hunters and wraps that girls wore during the excision ceremony and consummation of marriage. Through its association with blood, or, rather, loss of it, the cloth assumed sacred powers of protection.

As producers of this cloth, women were set apart in the tribal hierarchy, empowered as keepers of significant tribal traditions.

Malian bogolan cloth, Dogon region (courtesy University of Iowa Museum of Art)

By the 1970s, bogolanfini tradition had nearly died out, perhaps due to the ever-encroaching exigencies of the Global Village, perhaps to instability caused by the Malian struggle for independence.

Chris Seydou ensemble

In the 1980s, through the efforts of cultural administrators and activists, as well as fashion designer Chris Seydou, Malians rediscovered this “heritage.” Bogolanfini soon mutated into two strains of bogolan—mass-produced fabrics that serve the tourist and fashion markets; and fine art, for which bogolanfini methods were repurposed in a variety of ways. (Ismaël Diabaté and Sidicki Traoré are the best-known Malian artists.)

“Tourist trade” bogolan could be considered a positive development, because the industry provides economic means to segments of the population, which otherwise might be disenfranchised.

Ismaël Diabaté, Little Watermelon, 1998,
Cotton, acrylic paint.

On the other, as is usually the case with an area on the way to full economic development, there’s a sobering catch.

In contrast to bogolanfini, bogolan is produced explicitly for sale by urban males from all Malian tribes. The production and distribution chains are controlled by men; very few women are found anywhere in this industry. Thus, appropriation of a venerable textile tradition has produced a not too subtle shift in the social hierarchy.

Men stitching bags commissioned by Hallmark as part of Bono’s “Red” line, 2007. (Courtesy Fatoumata Berthé In Mali-la)

The mass-produced cloth is fashioned into all sorts of garments and accessories, all of them necessarily disconnected from the original bogolanfini sacral purpose. Additionally, the requirements of new markets have necessitated production “improvements.” Bogolan cotton cloth is machine woven in one piece. Hand painting, if it is part of the process at all, is usually employed through stenciling. Mud may or may create the dark areas; and in bogolan it is often affixed to the traditionally “positive” spaces.

Finally, the original pattern combinations, potent emissaries of a specific cultural identity, have been watered-down for mass consumption, simplified for a public that cannot possibly be conversant in the original symbolic language. Moreover, for non-Bamanans, the cultural traditions embodied by the original language of the cloth, while comprehensible perhaps by some, are largely insignificant to the buying public.  Thus bogolan is doubly detached from its source.

And yet, bogolan clearly retains the aura of boglanfini.

Contemporary “mudcloth”-style blanket

Because clothing is highly visible statement of self, Westerner wearers of bogolan communicate a complicated message about themselves.

On a purely aesthetic level,  boglan telegraphs the wearer’s love of bold geometric patterns and “natural” color combinations. However, even the latter attribute has been confused by the introduction of non-bogolanfini color schemes, as the photo below demonstrates.  On the aesthetic level, bogolan may be no different from other Western-centric design schemes.

On a deeper level, bogolan communicates that its wearer is “exotic;” is open to “the other” (i.e. things beyond him/herself); is at least superficially aware of world cultures, perhaps even has an affinity for specifically African or Malian cultures. The attraction to bogolan might also involve in a (misguided) notion of the “purity” and “simplicity” of “primitive” cultures; i.e. that the wearer appreciates or yearns for the “simpler” life. In these regards, the craze for bogolan seems similar to the 19th-century European fever for all things “Eastern” (see Venetian Red, “From Mughals to Minis”).

Perhaps the most distressing element of bogolan is the uncertainty surrounding bogolanfini’s continued survival. On a profound level, bogolan might signal the defeat of local cultural identity at the hands of Western homogenization.

Contemporary “mudcloth” fabrics for sale on US website

Wider Connections

Melissa Enderle—Images & Sites of Mali

Dress for Sports—A Chance Encounter with Sidicki Traoré

Malian Textiles—Haffenreffer Museum

Victoria Rovine—Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali

World Vision—Mali

Habib Koité—Afriki. A Malian musician, one Africa’s most popular and recognized.  I was first introduced to him by a Putamayo collection, then saw him at Yoshi’s last year. Fabulous, I’m hooked.

Fred Davis—Fashion, Culture, and Identity

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5 Responses to “Malian Bogolanfini and Cultural Identity”

  1. What a fascinating insight into a little known (to me) part of the world. You know, the change from traditional, women-produced craft to more production line, male made crafts is or has happened in a lot of areas. I’m glad that such a poor country has some source of revenue but I’m sorry to see women devalued even further in a part of the world where they are at risk in every area of life. I suppose that the traditional cloth wouldn’t mean very much to Westerners but again, I hate to see a unique artistic tradition lost.

  2. Great post! Thanks.

  3. Thank you for this excellent brief history of the Malian textiles. Several weeks ago I spent time looking at a gorgeous black and white Malian bogolanfini cloth at the Met in New York. I am not surprised to find out that these cloths accrued sacred powers through their use in rituals. It is sad that the contemporary textiles carry only a vestige of that power.

  4. Many thanks for this entry. Sure the impact of traditional African art on contemporary westerner art and culture is very important. The surrealist group for instance, understood it very early. Not necessary, neither, to recall that Picasso was a mask and sculptures collector… But the influence of hand crafted cloth is not to forget. Specially Bogolan, which is so interesting with the geometric patterns. I’m starting a work where I’d like to link up organic (cloth) and mineral (fresco). And your post gives me some ideas… Thank you! From France, kind regards.

  5. Throughout history “developed” cultures has appropriated from the “tribal” cultures, often with results similar to what has happened in Mali. I think it was Faith Ringgold who said that she had realized the cultural richness of her African ancestry until she really studied Picasso’s mask collection. (I’m paraphrasing here.) Perhaps not so ironically, it took a white European artist to call attention to the aesthetic value of African tribal masks…

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