The Past, Present and Future of Bogolan — Mali’s Cloth Of The Soil

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

Originally published on Amaka Studio

A quick primer on the history of Bogolan mud cloth.

djembe drum, the seat of one of West Africa’s most illustrious empires, and — in the modern day — has developed its own unique musical traditions, exemplified by the likes of Ami Kota, Sekou Bambino and the legendary singer Salif Keita. But it’s also spearheaded an ancestral technique of dye and cloth art that continues to intrigue international audiences, artists and fashion houses, known as Bògòlanfini. Mali is laden with a rich culture that continues to flourish on the continent and beyond. It is the home of one of Africa’s most seminal musical instruments, the djembe drum, the seat of one of West Africa’s most illustrious empires, and — in the modern day — has developed its own unique musical traditions, exemplified by the likes of Ami Kota, Sekou Bambino and the legendary singer Salif Keita. But it’s also spearheaded an ancestral technique of dye and cloth art that continues to intrigue international audiences, artists and fashion houses, known as Bògòlanfini.

Unlike indigo dying, which is prevalent throughout several other West African countries, Bògòlanfini is a traditional textile production, in which handcrafted cotton fabrics are dyed with fermented mud. It’s a technique that dates back to the 12th century, and is largely practiced by various Malian ethnic groups such as the Bambara, Malinké, and Dogon peoples. Bogolan is a word that in the Bambara language means “mud cloth’’, with its prefix “Bogo” meaning clay and its suffix “lan”, referring to the “tool that achieves the outcome”. Together the name translates directly to “the result that gives you clay on the fabric”.

When producing bogolan, the cloth is first soaked in a dye bath made from leaves of trees like the n’gallama (Anogeissus leiocarpa) or the cangara (Combretum glutinosum), which have been liquidised, boiled and soaked. Traditionally, bogolan comes mostly in black clay and white cotton, but it can also be dark yellow, brown or dark red — depending on the plant and dye used to create the colours. The clothes are then dried outside and painted with designs using pieces of metal and wood. The paint used to outline the intricate motifs is made of mud from river beds that have been fermented for up to a year in clay jars. Because of a chemical reaction between the mud and the dyed cloth, the brown color remains after the mud is washed off. Finally, any remaining yellow n’gallama dye is removed from the unpainted parts of the cloth through soap.

Unlike indigo dying, which is prevalent throughout several other West African countries, Bògòlanfini is a traditional textile production, in which handcrafted cotton fabrics are dyed with fermented mud. It’s a technique that dates back to the 12th century, and is largely practiced by various Malian ethnic groups such as the Bambara, Malinké, and Dogon peoples. Bogolan is a word that in the Bambara language means “mud cloth’’, with its prefix “Bogo” meaning clay and its suffix “lan”, referring to the “tool that achieves the outcome”. Together the name translates directly to “the result that gives you clay on the fabric”.

When producing bogolan, the cloth is first soaked in a dye bath made from leaves of trees like the n’gallama (Anogeissus leiocarpa) or the cangara(Combretum glutinosum), which have been liquidised, boiled and soaked. Traditionally, bogolan comes mostly in black clay and white cotton, but it can also be dark yellow, brown or dark red — depending on the plant and dye used to create the colours. The clothes are then dried outside and painted with designs using pieces of metal and wood. The paint used to outline the intricate motifs is made of mud from river beds that have been fermented for up to a year in clay jars. Because of a chemical reaction between the mud and the dyed cloth, the brown color remains after the mud is washed off. Finally, any remaining yellow n’gallama dye is removed from the unpainted parts of the cloth through soap.

“Until its recent resurgence, Bògòlanfini was predominantly produced by women. Historically, men would shear the sheep and weave strips of cotton, but women were mostly in charge of combing, spinning the wool, learning to dye the material with patterns they learned from mothers and other female relatives, and handling the tailoring of the product.

“Until its recent resurgence, Bògòlanfini was predominantly produced by women. Historically, men would shear the sheep and weave strips of cotton, but women were mostly in charge of combing, spinning the wool, learning to dye the material with patterns they learned from mothers and other female relatives, and handling the tailoring of the product”

They would learn and curate the visual languages inherent in the patterns. These are often represented with abstract motifs using everyday objects, song, proverbs or even historical events. The recent rise in its popularity has changed the lives of some of these women who have gone on to sell bogolan style clothes to art collectors and teach aspiring male artists in the Malian capital of Bamako.

Art collectives, like the Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, have been instrumental in fueling the popularity of bogolan-based designs within the past two decades. Members including Boubacar Doumbia, Kandioura Coulibaly, Klètigui Dembélé, Néné Thiam, Souleymane Goro, and Baba Fallo Keita have worked together since the late 70s to produce new images in paintings using traditional bogolan techniques and materials. Their work has gone on to inspire visual artists, fashion designers as well as film directors. Fashion designers such as Chris Seydou are credited with popularising indigenous art forms from Mali, such as bogolan. The famous textile has been worn by the likes of former first lady Michelle Obama, Naomi Campbell, and more recently, Beyonce in her 2020 visual album “Black is King.”

They would learn and curate the visual languages inherent in the patterns. These are often represented with abstract motifs using everyday objects, song, proverbs or even historical events. The recent rise in its popularity has changed the lives of some of these women who have gone on to sell bogolan style clothes to art collectors and teach aspiring male artists in the Malian capital of Bamako.

Art collectives, like the Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, have been instrumental in fueling the popularity of bogolan-based designs within the past two decades. Members including Boubacar Doumbia, Kandioura Coulibaly, Klètigui Dembélé, Néné Thiam, Souleymane Goro, and Baba Fallo Keita have worked together since the late 70s to produce new images in paintings using traditional bogolan techniques and materials. Their work has gone on to inspire visual artists, fashion designers as well as film directors. Fashion designers such as Chris Seydou are credited with popularising indigenous art forms from Mali, such as bogolan. The famous textile has been worn by the likes of former first lady Michelle Obama, Naomi Campbell, and more recently, Beyonce in her 2020 visual album “Black is King.”

There’s also been growing interest in bogolan due to more businesses selling patterns associated with the textile. Despite this, bogolan is a process local communities retain full autonomy over — from the cultivation of the cotton to the pots that are used. The cloth is a part of everyday life that is worn on a regular basis. For example, traditional hunters wear bogolan clothing sewn with various amulets and it is a favourite in traditional theatre acts such as the Koteba. It is also worn for many rituals and spiritual ceremonies. Bogolan is everyday apparel worn in rural areas, and this presents an interesting challenge in identifying the next generation of bogolan artisans. According to Groupe Bogolan Kasobane member Dembéle, it may require a new approach that’s in line with growing urbanization in the country.

While students in the 70s found it difficult to access and utilise bogolan and indigo, these materials have now become standard use, the establishment of public art institutions like the National Institute of Arts and the Conservator for Multimedia Arts and Crafts mean that city-dwelling students who live away from dye pits and fields can learn both techniques in a more structured environment. Both young craftsmen and women can learn about the dyed textile and bring their own unique style and innovation to it, which can in-turn enhance its commercial value — rendering bogolan in safe hands.

There’s also been growing interest in bogolan due to more businesses selling patterns associated with the textile. Despite this, bogolan is a process local communities retain full autonomy over — from the cultivation of the cotton to the pots that are used. The cloth is a part of everyday life that is worn on a regular basis. For example, traditional hunters wear bogolan clothing sewn with various amulets and it is a favourite in traditional theatre acts such as the Koteba. It is also worn for many rituals and spiritual ceremonies. Bogolan is everyday apparel worn in rural areas, and this presents an interesting challenge in identifying the next generation of bogolan artisans. According to Groupe Bogolan Kasobane member Dembéle, it may require a new approach that’s in line with growing urbanization in the country.

While students in the 70s found it difficult to access and utilise bogolan and indigo, these materials have now become standard use, the establishment of public art institutions like the National Institute of Arts and the Conservator for Multimedia Arts and Crafts mean that city-dwelling students who live away from dye pits and fields can learn both techniques in a more structured environment. Both young craftsmen and women can learn about the dyed textile and bring their own unique style and innovation to it, which can in-turn enhance its commercial value — rendering bogolan in safe hands.

Journalist with an affinity for all things ‘African Diaspora’ and Islam. You can @ me via adamaj.co.uk or twitter/@adamajmunu

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