Suitcase and World: Art of the cloth.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Art of the cloth.

ogolanfini (“Bo-ho-lahn-FEE-nee”) or bogolan is the traditional cloth of Mali and is considered an expression of Malian national identity. In the western world, it's more commonly referred to as "mud cloth".  Mud cloth is a long established tradition among the Bamana, an indigenous people who inhabit a large area to the east and north of Bamako in Mali.

Mud cloth is hand woven and hand-dyed cotton that uses a centuries old process to apply various plant juices/teas and mud to create designs on the cloth.  Traditionally worn as clothing, mud cloth these days is used in all the ways that cloth can be used including being made into table cloths,  handbags, pillow coverings and even as furniture fabric.

The story goes that mud cloth was first discovered when a hunter chased an antelope into a river and got mud on his tunic. When his wife tried to clean the tunic, she could not remove the mud stains. This river was in the northern part of Mali and it is from this region that the mud is "harvested" for use in mud cloth because of the particular acid and mineral levels found in this region.

Traditionally men weave the white cotton and women create the intricate designs, although the roles have become interchangeable today.  For Bamana women though, mudcloth has always been an essential component in the marking of major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death. Bogolanfini is a living art form, with techniques and motifs passed down from generations of mothers to daughters.

The process of making mudcloth is an elaborate one but it begins simply with locally grown cotton that is harvested, hand spun and prepared for the looming process.  The weaving process is done on small hand or double heddle looms.  The cotton is woven into long strips, called "finimugu". These thin strips, typically seven in number (but anywhere from 5 to 9 or more), are them sewn together to create a panel ranging from approximately 32”x48” to 45”x72” in dimension.

Once the cotton panel is woven, it's the women's turn to create the designs.  First the cloth is washed in boiling water to shrink it to its final size.

After drying, it is then soaked in a special solution of pounded leaves from the cengura tree, which is native to Mali. The cengura leaf solution enables the fabric to absorb the mud dye. Following the soaking, the cloth takes on a yellowish color, which will fade slightly when dried in the sun. 

Next, the design is painted on using a mud dye which is made from iron rich mud that was collected from ponds, mixed with water, set aside and allowed to ferment for up to a year, turning it black. The mud dye is painted on the cloth using sticks, reeds, strips of bamboo, palm fiber brushes, feathers and other tools.  Only the background is painted; unpainted areas form the design.

Once the cloth is painted with the mud, it is left to dry.  It is then again be washed in a different solution of leaves, grasses and herbs to ensure the mud is bound to the cloth.  The process of painting and washing can be repeated two or three times to achieve a darker or brighter color.

The final step in making mudcloth is bleaching. Bleaching is where a caustic soda, called "sodani", is carefully applied to the yellow areas of the cloth (the design), the parts where the mud dye was not applied. This step makes the design stand out from the mud dyed areas.

Traditionally, mudcloth is black with white design though other earthy colors such as browns, ochre and brownish yellows also used.  Contemporary versions also colors like red, purple, green, and blue.

Each piece of mudcloth tells a story. No two pieces are alike and each pattern and color combination has a meaning.

If you want to try your hand at making mudcloth, the Smithsonian Institute put together a website and this nifty Flash video that steps you through the process.  The website and the video were created back in 2003 when Mali was featured at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival which takes place on the Mall in Washington, DC.  Too bad I didn't have any clue about Mali back then.  Otherwise, I would have gone to see the exhibition.

After having read up on mudcloth, I find it absolutely fascinating.  Such a time and labor intensive process using very rudimentary materials....cotton cloth, leaves, bark, mud, water and sun to produce a rustic work of art.  Though the craft is centuries old, I think the designs are timeless and beautiful in their simplicity.  Black and white patterned cloth will never go out of style :-)

In doing my research on mudcloth, I found that there are some womens' cooperatives, in Bamako, that sell the "real" stuff....not the factory made versions that flood the tourist markets.  I'm hoping I can find the time to go to one because I would really, really love to own a piece of Malian mudcloth.