Bogolan cloth or boglanfini (bogo means “mud” or “earth;” lan is “of” or “with,” and fini “cloth.” Thus, it is correct to say either “bogolan cloth” or “bogolanfini;” the plural form is bogolanfiniw.), which is mud-dyed cloth with highlighted patterns that encode medical, historical, social and moral concepts. It is worn by pubescent girls as they make the transition to womanhood, by hunters in the forest and in increasing numbers, by a broad array of Malians and international fashionistas (Brett-Smith 1984, 2007; Rovine 2001, 2004). Kandiora Coulibaly, founder of the atelier Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, once stated that bogolan cloth was “literally made of the earth, forests, rivers and sun of Mali” (Rovine 2001:15). Its materials and process of manufacture speak to powerful holistic connections with the earth as a material resource.
Bogolanfini is made through a time- and labor-intensive process that involves the use of river soil, leaves and sunlight. Mud-dyed or stamped textiles can be found in San, Mopti and Dogon regions of Mali, though Beledougou is widely recognized for the superior quality of its cloths and Nakunte Diarra of Kolokani, a small town in the heart of Beledougou, has received international attention for the outstanding quality of her bogolanfiniw. Widely recognized as the best living bogolan artist, Nakunte Diarra has been making cloth for nearly fifty years.
The process begins when she harvests iron-rich soil from a stream bed that is then placed in a large clay jar with water and allowed to ferment for up to a year. Individual artists may have their own recipe for mud, adding coveted leaves to enhance the depth of color to be yielded by the mud, and Diarra is no exception. She dyes clothes that may be made from cotton grown locally and cleaned, carded and spun by women of the region before it is turned over to men to be woven into long strips that will be cut and sewn into the desired dimensions. The cloth is soaked in a solution of mashed and boiled n’gallama and n’tjankara leaves, then dried in the sun. The artist next maps out her design plan and begins to carefully apply the mud, using it to stain the negative space surrounding her design motifs, which remain undyed. After the full surface has been completed, the mud will dry and the cloth will be washed, only to have the process repeated until the color saturation is deep and rich. The final step is to wash away the yellow tint produced by the leaf baths with a soap made of millet bran, caustic soda and ground peanuts, thus heightening the contrast between the design motifs and their meticulously mud-dyed backdrop.
Bogolanfini is an art of transformation. Plants such as cotton, leaves from trees, soil from waterbeds and sunlit air combine to form a new whole with the power to absorb a young woman’s blood following excision and her first marital night, and the potency to hold amulets and strengthen a hunter as he takes on the wild. As Sarah Brett-Smith has argued, the signs and symbols that adorn the bogolanfini retain the knowledge of herbs that heal and other esoteric messages, but it is also that taming of the natural materials used to create these cloths that give them the fortitude to control nyama, the spiritual force or “energy that animates the universe” (McNaughton 1988: 15).
This cloth includes several known patterns, most prominently the combination of crosses within chevrons flanked by two triangles joined at their peak and positioned within framing lines. Known as turusina, or “Mount Sinai,” this motif also combines the words turu (“to plant with force,” or “to pound”) and sina (co-wife). Thus, the motif also refers to both the rivalry between wives and the need for cooperation as they share in the preparation of food and other daily activities (Aherne 1992: 21). Additional motifs include the zigzag, sungurun sen kelen, or “one legged girl,” a longstanding design frequently worn by young women of marriageable age, and tala, the outline of a cross in which dots appear, that may refer to a head-cushion or pillow.
Square mud-resist dyed wrapper with cruciform and zigzag motifs.
Anonymous donor, acquired from the artist, 1992 to 2012
Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., April 22, 2013-February 23, 2014; Fowler Museum at UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles, April 19-September 14, 2014; Bowdoin College Museum of Art, October 15, 2015-March 9, 2016
Milbourne, Karen E. 2013. Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. New York: The Monacelli Press; Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 28, no. 13.