The Malian Bogolan is one of the world's most recognized and distinctive, handcrafted African textiles. Strikingly dramatic in its strong, contrasting tones of cream and ochre through to black/brown or indigo blue, the cloth has many applications and uses.
More recently, it has been embraced as a symbol of Malian cultural identity.
Termed Bogalanfini (Bambara term) or Bogolan (modern terminology for a contemporary cloth), this textile is a handmade, Malian, cotton fabric which has traditionally been dyed with fermented mud in a painstakingly long and complex process. The cloth was made traditionally by the Bamana who live to the east and west of Bamako, but the best cloth comes from the Beledougou area where it is thought the cloth originated from as early as the 12th Century.
The centre of production is San and the highest quality cloth can be found here, woven by the menfolk into strips of narrow cloth which are then stitched and dyed by the women of the town. Decoration takes place by either males or females and the whole process can take weeks to complete. Generally, 6 bands of handwoven, plain cloth are sewn together, selvedge to selvedge, to produce the larger item known as bogalanfini cloth (5 if there are borders).
This cloth was a major element of life; often incorporated in milestones and sacred events. Historically worn by tribal women as a wraparound item of apparel, like a skirt or shawl, it signified important, transitional events like after excision, pre-marriage, childbirth and finally a burial shroud.
It was also worn by men as a hunting tunic or shirt such as this historical item featured above. Sometimes these tunics would be dyed red as camouflage in desert areas. Amulets and leather accessories would also be worn for good luck.
Bogolanfini etymological roots are Bambara, the language spoken by the Bamana people of Mali and it is derived from 3 words.. 'logo' meaning mud/earth, 'lan' meaning by means of and 'fini' meaning cloth. Its an ancient tradition but the fragile and perishable nature of the cloth means it is virtually impossible to trace its origins.
However, many beautiful antique examples of mud cloth can be found in museums throughout the world. This cloth below resides in the British Museum and was worn by women following excision and during the final ceremonial after which a girl goes to her husband's village.
Designs would be aligned (horizontal, vertical, borders) according to their end usage. The designs go beyond aesthetics being traditionally based on cultural symbols and patterns and are full of meaning making reference to animals, religion, cultural and historical events, tribal stories and mythologies.
With each cloth's unique message and the hand rendered process, no two pieces of cloth can ever be identical: There are so many different aspects to the craft of producing this textile.
As many African countries gained their independence, national pride in traditional crafts grew significantly. Social and political developments in the USA caused an interest in African textiles and 'back to roots' cultural identity.
Popularity of these textiles even extended to fashion and in 1979 a young Malian designer Chris Say-dou (the father of African fashion) included bogolan wraps in his collection in Paris. From then on factories and commercial ventures began to be set up in Mali and these cloths were produced on a larger scale for a more materialistic use.
There is a symbolic language in these designs and the meaning of these symbols is closely guarded by tribal womenfolk. This knowledge gives them prestige in their societies. The designs are meant to be imbued with magical and therapeutic properties, giving them a life-force of their own, called nyama which holds sacred powers of protection.
Some women have their own concoctions, using different plant species to make up the dyes which are used; essentially white, red (terracotta) and black.
Bogolanfini is a very distinctive textile and very 'African' in flavor. Strong geometric or natural patterns, earthy colors like ochre, terra-cotta and charcoal, thick, robust and handwoven cotton fabric sewed together with manually bound seams... it speaks of heritage, culture and tradition.
The symbols used in the designs of these beautiful cloths can be interpreted according to knowledge passed through the generations, mother to daughter. The main ones can be seen in the charts below but there are many more and as time passes, new ones are introduced, sometimes for aesthetics alone.
Cultural tourism has become a pillar of many local communities either selling or making bogolan cloths since the mid 2000's when UNESCO declared many new cultural sites in Mali.
These days, Bogolan cloths are widely exported from Mali and used in fashion, upholstery, interiors and decoration. Design and color wise, the fabric has widespread appeal and fits into many applications in the home decor and fashion world.
Of course, the authentic and traditional version is still produced and there is growing concern for how the demand for a more commercial version will affect the future of the production of these traditional cloths. Especially as those tribal folk that have the knowledge are declining in numbers. On the other hand opening up the process to accommodate a wider market has had significant impact on the spread of the appreciation of the fabric and makes heritage more relevant to today's society.
The Bogolan Kasobane Group
6 artists, recently graduated from the National Institute of Art, Bamako formed this group in 1978. It still exists today with the same members but for one (Kandioura Coulibaly) who died in 2015. Their newest member is a woman, Nene Thiam.
Their common goal was, and still is, to innovate and promote the art of making bogolan cloth in Mali and the rest of the world. They have exhibited widely, promoting their contemporary pieces as well as showing the origins of bogalanfini. Their works are layered with meaning and manage to raise the basic materials used in the craft into something contemporary and significant in its own right.
They are also very interested in the cloth being used for non-traditional, combined purposes; like using bogolan fabric to make up boubous, the traditional, long garment with wide sleeves worn by Malian males. Usually its embroidered but with Group Kasobane, the robe is given a very different take... an elaboration of tradition in their attempt to preserve their heritage.
They also make costumes and sets for theatre and film using modern bogolan cloths.