mud cloth

text commissioned by Toast

Bògòlanfini, or mud cloth, is both an ancient tradition and a post-independence symbol of national identity for the landlocked west African nation of Mali. The term bogolan means quite literally “made from mud” in the Bambara language spoken throughout the country. Unusually for textiles, production is the outcome of shared labour: the cloth is usually woven by men and then decorated by women. Early examples of Bògòlanfini are thought to date to the 12th century, although the geometric patterns and often high contrast palette mean many examples of the cloth feel timeless. A bit part appearance in Star Wars perhaps also shows the cloth’s anachronistic ability to refer as much to the future as the past.

The distinctive geometric patterns of Bògòlanfini are often dark earthy colours such rust, mustard and black set in contrast to a white or ivory background of woven cotton. Fermented iron rich mud is responsible in part for the palette. Worn by both men and women, the textile is part of girls initiation ceremonies into adulthood and married women wear the cloth wrapped around the waist as a skirt; men’s dress can include the cloth as a form of camouflage worn while hunting. In some instances, hunters are attributed with wearing a rust coloured version of the cloth to conceal the blood of their hunt.

While the meaning behind the patterns found on mud cloth vary across geographic regions and individual makers, a group of common shapes make regular appearances. Several parallel lines, for example, are interpreted as the spindle which creates the cloth’s cotton thread. A circle with a central dot stands for family and community. Still other symbols make for harder guess work: the iguanas elbow, for example, is thought to represent good fortune due to the animal’s ability to lead hunters to water sources, while snake bones are purported to represent a hunter’s bravery. But Bògòlanfini’s symbols are far from exclusively drawn from nature. Cushions, for example, are meant to refer to wealthy women who have no need for work and can instead spend their time resting their heads on pillows.

Production of Bògòlanfini is time intensive and the work is often undertaken during dry season when less time is devoted to tending agriculture. The thick woven cotton cloth is made in long, narrow strips known as finimugu which are later sewn together to create wider pieces of cloth. The cloth is then soaked in leaves which provide tannin that acts as a mordant in a process that turns the white cotton yellow. Decorating the cloth’s surface follows, knowledge that has typically been passed through the generations from mothers to daughters. Women paint up to several layers of the distinctive dark colours onto the cloth using various recipes that include fermented mud, roots, leaves, tree bark and even wild grapes. Patterning is additive, meaning the colour is introduced rather than removed to make bold patterns. Often dark against light, the high contrast patterns of mud cloth rely on the skill and accuracy of the maker’s hand with little option for going back if an area is painted in error.

After the dark pattern colours are added, further soaking and boiling set the colour. The remaining yellow base cloth is then painted with sodani or caustic soda and exposed to bright daylight turning the areas white or ivory. With so many time hungry steps, and the need for drying and bleaching, production is precariously weather dependent. Bògòlanfini has experienced a decline shared by many handmade textiles, with traditional production methods often replaced with printed replicas. The use of stencils in place of the skill of freehand painting are now also common, but some traditional production remains in evidence, in part fuelled by post-independence tourism.