African Clothmaking

Bògòlanfini: Traditional Malian Cloth

Bògòlanfini is a traditional Malian fabric that is exported worldwide for use in fashion, fine art, and decoration.

Learning Objectives

Describe the bògòlanfini fabric of the San culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Bògòlanfini, or “mud cloth,” is a handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. It has an important place in traditional Malian culture and has, more recently, become a symbol of Malian cultural identity.
  • The cloth is being exported worldwide for use in fashion, fine art, and decoration.
  • In traditional bògòlanfini production, the cloth is soaked in a bath of dye from the leaves of the n’gallama tree and then painted in intricate motifs with a special fermented mud collected from riverbeds.
  • Modern, simplified production techniques using simpler designed and faster methods that allow large quantities of bògòlanfini to be mass-produced six to seven times faster for the tourist and export markets.
  • In Mali, the cloth is worn by people of all ethnicities, including prominently in Malian cinema and by Malian musicians, either as an expression of national or ethnic identity or as a fashion style.

Key Terms

  • motif: A recurring or dominant element in a work of art.

Bògòlanfini

Bògòlanfini, or bogolan (“mud cloth”), is a handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. It has an important place in traditional Malian culture, and, more recently, it has become a symbol of Malian cultural identity. The cloth is being exported worldwide for use in fashion, fine art, and decoration. Its center of production is in San, a city located in the Ségou Region of Mali.

Traditional Production

In traditional bògòlanfini production, men weave the cloth and women dye it. On narrow looms, strips of cotton fabric about 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) wide are woven and stitched into cloths about 1 meter (3 feet) wide and 1.5 meters (5 feet) long.

The dyeing process begins with the cloth being soaked in a dye bath made from mashed and boiled, or soaked, leaves of the n’gallama tree (Anogeissus leiocarpa). Once it has taken on a yellow hue, the cloth is sun-dried and then painted with designs using a piece of metal or wood. The paint, carefully and repeatedly applied to outline the intricate motifs, is made of a special mud, collected from riverbeds and fermented for up to a year in a clay jar. Due to a chemical reaction between the mud and the dyed cloth, the brown color remains after the mud is washed off. Finally, the yellow n’gallama dye is removed from the unpainted parts of the cloth by applying soap or bleach, rendering them white. After prolonged use, the very dark brown color turns a variety of rich tones of brown, while the unpainted underside of the fabric retains a pale russet color.

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Bògòlanfini fabric: The paint on traditional mud cloths, carefully and repeatedly applied to outline the intricate motifs, is made of a special mud collected from riverbeds and fermented for up to a year in a clay jar.

Simplified Production

Around Mopti and Djenné, a simpler method is used to produce bògòlanfini. The cloth is dyed yellow in wolo solution made from the leaves of Terminalia avicennoides and is then painted over with black designs. The yellow is either removed, producing a stark black and white design, or painted a deep orange with a solution from the bark of M’Peku (Lannea velutina).

Based on these simplified techniques, large quantities of bògòlanfini are now being mass-produced for the tourist and export markets. These fabrics use simpler designs, often applied by stencil and painted in black on a yellow or orange background. With this method, the cloth can be produced about six to seven times faster. The democratic reforms in Mali after the overthrow of Moussa Traoré in 1991 caused many young men to lose their previously guaranteed government jobs and scholarships, leading many to take up bògòlanfini production. Consequently, most cloth is now produced by men rather than women, and the traditional year-long apprenticeships have been replaced by short, informal training sessions.

Cultural Significance

Traditional Uses

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Bògòlanfini : Bògòlanfini hanging in the market of Enndé.

In traditional Malian culture, bògòlanfini is worn by hunters, serving as camouflage, as ritual protection, and as a badge of status. Women are wrapped in bògòlanfini after their initiation into adulthood (which includes genital cutting) and immediately after childbirth, as the cloth is believed to have the power to absorb the dangerous forces released under such circumstances. Bògòlanfini patterns are rich in cultural significance, referring to historical events (such as a famous battle between a Malian warrior and the French), crocodiles (significant in Bambara mythology) or other objects, mythological concepts, and proverbs. Since about 1980, bògòlanfini has become a symbol of Malian cultural identity and is being promoted as such by the Malian government.

Modern Uses

In Mali, the cloth is now worn by people of all ethnicities, including prominently in Malian cinema and by Malian musicians, either as an expression of national or ethnic identity or as a fashion style. Particularly popular among young people, Bògòlanfini is made into a wide range of clothes, Western miniskirts, and jackets, as well as traditional flowing robes (boubous). The Malian fashion designer Chris Seydou has been credited with popularizing bògòlanfini in international fashion. Bògòlanfini has become a popular Malian export, notably to the United States. There, it is marketed as mud cloth, either as a symbol of Malian culture or as a generically ethnic decorative cloth.

In Art

Bògòlanfini is also produced as fine art by several Malian artists, notably by the Groupe Bogolan Kasobané, six artists who have been collaborating since 1978. These paintings are produced with vegetable dyes and mud but often feature designs unrelated to those of traditional fabrics; their newer motifs are also often found on clothing. Traditional bògòlanfini designs are also used on a wide range of commercial products, such as coffee mugs, curtains, towels, sheets, book covers, and wrapping paper.

Cloth Production in Bamum

The Bamum people are known for their extensive dyeing practice and their production of royal cloth, known as Ntieya.

Learning Objectives

Describe the history, dyes, and beaded sculptures of the Kingdom of Bamum

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Bamum people are a Bantu ethnic group of Cameroon with around 215,000 members; the pre-colonial kingdom of Bamum existed in what is now northwest Cameroon from 1394–1884.
  • The economy of the Bamum Kingdom was largely agricultural, and slave owning was practiced on a small scale. The Bamum kingdom also traded with neighboring populations, importing salt, iron, beads, cotton goods, and copper objects.
  • The Bamum people have an indigenous writing system, known as Bamum script or Shu Mom. The script was developed by Sultan Ibrahim Njoya in 1896, and is taught in Cameroon by the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project.
  • The Bamun developed an extensive artistic culture at their capital of Fumban at the beginning of the 20th century. During Njoya’s reign six dye pits containing various colors were maintained.
  • The Bamum imported indigo-dyed raffia-sewn cloth from the Hausa to be used as royal cloth, known as Ntieya; Hausa craftsmen were kept at palace workshops to supply nobles and teach the art of dyeing.
  • During the 19th and early 20th century, Bamum artists also created splendid beaded sculptures for the royal court.

Key Terms

  • indigo: A purplish-blue color.
  • Hausa: One of the largest ethnic groups in Africa; a diverse but culturally homogeneous people based primarily in the Sahelian and Sudanian Daura area of northern Nigeria and southeastern Niger, with significant numbers also living in parts of Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Togo, Ghana, Sudan, Gabon, and Senegal.

Background: Bamum

The Bamum people are a Bantu ethnic group of Cameroon with around 215,000 members. The pre-colonial kingdom of Bamum (1394–1884) was a West African state in what is now northwest Cameroon. The Mbum, a part-Bantu ethnic group from northeast Cameroon, founded the kingdom at the end of the 14th century; its capital was the ancient walled city of Fumban.

The German Empire claimed the territory as the colony of Kamerun in 1884 and began a steady push inland. They initiated projects to improve the colony’s infrastructure, relying on a harsh system of forced labor. With the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kamerun became a League of Nations mandate territory and was split into French Camero0n and British Cameroons in 1919. France integrated the economy of Cameroon with that of France and improved the infrastructure with capital investments, skilled workers, and continued forced labor.

Bamum Culture and Art

The Bamum people have an indigenous writing system known as Bamum script or Shu Mom. The script was developed by Sultan Ibrahim Njoya in 1896 and is taught in Cameroon by the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project. Little is known about the Bamum Kingdom’s material and social culture during its existence. Originally, the language of state in the Bamum kingdom was that of the Tikar. This apparently did not last long, and the language of the conquered, Mben, was adopted.

Royal Cloth

The Bamum developed an extensive artistic culture at their capital of Fumban at the beginning of the 20th century. During the reign of Njoya, six dye pits containing various colors were maintained. The Bamum also imported indigo-dyed raffia-sewn cloth from the Hausa to be used as royal cloth. This royal cloth was called Ntieya, and Hausa craftsmen were kept at palace workshops to supply nobles and teach the art of dyeing. At the same time, during the 19th and early 20th century, Bamum artists created splendid beaded sculptures for the royal court. Colorful beadwork attached to a fabric base covers most of the carved wooden figures.

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Bamum sculpture: This life-size male figure from the kingdom of Bamum in Cameroon is a visually compelling example of the splendid beaded sculptures Bamum artists created for the royal court in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kente Cloth

The Asante are a clan of the Akan people and are known for their production of vibrantly colored Kente cloth.

Learning Objectives

Discuss Kente cloth and its cultural role

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Asante, or Ashanti, are a nation and ethnic group who live predominantly in and are native to Ashanti, Asanteman, and Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
  • Kente cloth (known as Nwentom in the Asante language), is an Asante type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips that is native to the Asante people.
  • The cloth was traditionally a royal and sacred cloth worn only at times of high importance, most often by Asante kings. Over time, the use of the Kente cloth have became more widespread, and it is one of the most well-known textiles in Africa.
  • A variety of Kente patterns have been invented, each of which has a certain concept or concepts traditionally associated with it.
  • The icon of African cultural heritage around the world, Kente cloth is identified by its dazzling, multicolored patterns of bright colors, geometric shapes, and bold designs.

Key Terms

  • crescent: The figure of the moon as it appears in its first or last quarter, with concave and convex edges terminating in points.
  • replica: An exact copy.

Background: The Asante People and Akan Art

The Asante, or Ashanti, are a nation and ethnic group who live predominantly in and are native to Ashanti, Asanteman, and in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. They speak Asante and are of Akan origin. Prior to European colonization, the Ashanti people developed a large and influential empire in West Africa. The Ashanti later developed the powerful Ashanti Confederacy, or Asanteman, and became the dominant presence in the region. The Asantehene is the political and spiritual head of the Asantes.

Art from the Akan people of West Africa is known primarily for Akan goldweights and cultural jewelry. The Akan people are also known for their strong connection between visual and verbal expressions. Akan culture values gold above all other metals, so the artwork and jewelry made of gold is of great worth to them, whether it be made for appearance, artistic expression, or more practical trading purposes.

Kente Cloth

Kente cloth (known as Nwentom in the Asante language), is an Asante type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips that is native to the Asante people. The cloth was traditionally a royal and sacred cloth worn only at times of high importance, most often by Asante kings. Over time, the use of the Kente became more widespread; however, its importance has remained and it is held in high esteem among the Asante people.

Kente cloth is made in Kumasi, the capital of Asante, and in the Asanteland Peninsula (specifically in Bonwire, Adanwomase, Sakora Wonoo, and Ntonso in the Kwabre areas of the Asante). The cloth is also worn by many other groups who have been influenced by Asante people, making it one of the best known of all African textiles.

Traditions and Development

A variety of Kente patterns have been invented, each of which has a certain concept or concepts traditionally associated with it. For example, the Obaakofoo Mmu Man pattern symbolizes democratic rule; Emaa Da symbolizes novel creativity and knowledge from experience; and Sika Fre Mogya represents responsibility to share monetary success with one’s relations. According to legend, Kente was first made by two Asante friends who went hunting in a forest and found a spider making its web. The friends stood and watched the spider for two days before returning home to implement what they had seen. West Africa has had a cloth weaving culture for centuries via the stripweave method, but Asante history tells of the cloth being created independent of outsider influence.

Uses

The icon of African cultural heritage around the world, Kente cloth is identified by its dazzling, multicolored patterns of bright colors, geometric shapes, and bold designs. A Kente cloth is typically sewn together from many narrow (about 3.9 inches wide) Kente stripes. Cloth that is characterized by weft designs woven into every available block of plain weave is called adweneasa. The Asante people choose Kente cloths as much for their names as for their colors and patterns; although the cloths are identified primarily by the patterns found in the lengthwise (warp) threads, there is often little correlation between appearance and name. Names are derived from several sources, including proverbs, historical events, important chiefs, queen mothers, and plants.

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Kente cloth : Kente weaving is a traditional craft among the Asante people of Ghana. A kente cloth is typically sewn together from many narrow (about 3.9 inches wide) kente stripes. This image shows different colorful patterns of typical Asante Kente stripes.