Generally referred to as “mud cloth,” Bogolanfini and Bogolan are two types of Malian fabric renowned for geometric patterns created through mud dyeing. Bogolan is a “simplified” version of bogolanfini, created for modern consumption. Bambara (Bamana) people is credited with making the finest mud cloth and San, a town 10km south of the Bani River in Mali, is considered the heart of mud cloth production. More than an everyday fabric, bogolanfini appears in important, sacred occasions in a Malian’s life.
Bogolanfini is woven by men and dyed by women. Traditionally, Mailian people grew cotton domestically and processed cotton by hand. Using local-made cotton yarn, the men weave 15cm-wide strips (finimugu) then stitch 5 or 7 strips together into a piece of cloth. This fabric will be washed in hot water and dried under the sun to shrink to its final size.
From this point onwards, the women take over to give the plain cloth its identity. The cloth is first dipped into a solution with local cengura (n’gallama) leaves, which helps the fiber absorb the mud dye and gives it a yellow tint. The maker draws the line of the patterns first then fills the negative space with mud. The iron-rich mud comes from local river basin and has to be fermented up to a year to bring out the black pigment. The iron oxide in the mud reacts with acid in the cengura solution and turns into iron tannate, dyeing the fiber black (Craft Enterprise has the explanation on their website). This process can be repeated several times for darker color. The fabric is then bleached with soap containing shea butter, potash and peanuts to remove the yellow color, revealing the original ivory color of the cotton cloth. In antique bogolanfini, the lines at the border of the patterns are left in ivory color, hence the “shadow” effect as explained by Hart Cottage Quilts history series. The high time of bogolanfini production is in the dry season between October and May when agricultural work slows down.
Bogolanfini fabric is not only beautiful; it also reflects the identity and mentality of the local people. There are efforts to study the meanings of bogolanfini patterns. However, similar to the case of many other ethnic textiles, the stories are often recorded from word-of-mouth tales. From my experience studying ethnic patterns in Vietnam, I came to a conclusion that the weavers, as skillful as they are, may not have the most accurate and accountable understanding of the profound symbolic meanings of their own patterns. Why? Because ethnic patterns are usually figurative, sometimes to an abstract level. They were created a long time ago and passed down through generations as an unspoken language. To fully understand what each pattern stand for requires one to dig deep into the history of a place, study the culture, (ancient) society, anthropology, even archaeology, as well as examine other forms of arts existing in that society such as sculpture and architecture. Oftentimes, superficial pattern reports can only go as far as giving you a glimpse into the rich cultural mentality of Mali in general and Banmara people in particular. The counter argument is that you don’t have to know the name of every star to appreciate the sky. Maybe those symbol ridden fabric will always be a mystery, a question with unlimited answer that never ceased to intrigue. What really matters when it comes down to pattern study is not consumer’s comprehension but makers’ comprehension in order to preserve the tradition.
Bogolanfini almost died out in the 1970s but was resurrected in the 1980s by enthusiastic artists and artisans. All of a sudden, the world turn their eyes on the tribal looking geometric patterns of bogolanfini; tourists seek mud-cloth souvenirs to bring home and retailers in the West find multiple applications for this fabric in fashion and home decor. A simplified mode of production is an inevitable answer to the traditional bogolanfini brought about by consumerism and tourism.
Bogolan, the modern version of bogolanfini, is claimed to be 6-7 times faster to make. Rather than the traditional pens and sticks, bogolan cloth is painted using stencils. The mud design occupies the foreground rather than the background. Untraditional colors such as orange, yellow or brown may also be added to the design. Modern bologan appears bolder and simpler while bologanfini has a subtle, monochrome quality. To undiscerned eyes, they appear similar, although much of the painstaking craftsmanship and intricate patterns are lost along the way. You can visit Hart Cottage Quilts website for a more detailed comparison of bogolanfini and bogolan.
We should, however, give bogolan its due credit. The birth of bogolan gives global customers easier access to mud cloth, fits better with the pace of production of our time, and ensures the legacy of bogolanfini lives on. Moreover, tradition is meant to constantly evolve to reflect the society. Opening up heritage to contemporary creativity brings about interesting development and makes heritage relevant to today’s society.
Beyond the production of the fabric itself, Malian artisans are learning to make their tradition even more appealing to Western customers by turning them into products. Sarah Berth, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, gave an insightful look into the making of bogolan bags for Hallmark bearing RED label. “We set up schedules and workshops and an assembly line – things that had never been done here before. We taught tailors the importance of using a tape measure to get accurate measurements, instead of just eyeing it, which is what they commonly do here” – Sarah shared. Sarah’s observation evokes a sense of déjà vu as I have had the same problem with artisans in Vietnam.
The assumption that artisan products are made with meticulous care because it is all about “craftsmanship” is a misleading thought. Unless we talk about cultures of precision like Japan or Germany, oftentimes you find local makers putting the button of a dress completely off centered or attaching the handles to a bag with a zig-zag sewing line and be OK with it. At the end of the day, we as customers are asking them to produce things FOR US. Malian bogolan makers don’t wear the Hallmark handbag – in the case of Mali. Ethnic weavers in Vietnam do not use the fancy placemats and table runner that they sew. If they have never seen a bag that’s worth a month of food for their family, how can they imagine the level of complexity going into making that bag. Thus, it is very important to understand the culture of work in the local area, follow up closely throughout the entire process, educate and lend a hand whenever artisans show the subtlest sign of confusion, and tighten QC to teach them what’s acceptable and what’s not. I can see here a beautiful future where not only products and money flow between countries, but knowledge – ethnic artisans teach us about their enchanting heritage and we teach them how to raise the standard of product development.