Legend has it that a woman was washing her husband’s clothes when she accidentally dropped them in mud. They were stained brown and the technique of mud cloth dyeing was born.
It was later discovered that fermented mud reacts with tannin and produces black. White is formed by bleaching away the colour.
The legend of bogolan’s roots was recounted to us by Jeneba Dao of the Tigoung Nonma Association, whom we filmed making black and white bogolan with her nephew, Seydou.
They are just two of many artisans in West Africa who now make a living from this ancient technique, traditionally done by the Bamanan women of Mali. They usually do it in dry season – there is much washing and drying to be done and rains play havoc with the process, as I found out this week. It all took 3 days longer than expected. I had ordered some fabric for covering chair cushions at home, and followed the process with a mind to developing products for SAHEL Design later.
The techniques and products vary in degrees of authenticity. The traditional rust coloured hunter’s tabards are still worn by some rural shepherds and look good on young musicians around the bars of Bamako and Ouagadougou. At the other end of the scale are the mustard brown wall hangings made mainly for tourists. They depict spindly women pounding grain, and other clichéd African scenes.
Such designs are scoffed at by bogolan purists, as is Seydou’s use of stencils. But stencilling motifs is more precise than hand painting, as well as five times faster.
What do the motifs mean? If you’re going to wear bogolan or have it about your house, wouldn’t you like to know what it says?
There lies the problem. Bogolan is not meant to be universally legible. The motifs are drawn as a code for the initiated, rather than something everyone can interpret. Besides, understanding the symbols used in traditional bogolan is not as simple as understanding a language or an alphabet. There are some basic motifs that are employed by bogolan artists the world over – a twirl for Life, and concentric circles for words – but other motifs are open to interpretation. According to Seydou, a circle with a dot in it represents the world, but I read elsewhere that it represents a house (circle) and a family (dot). This is why there will never be a ‘bogolan dictionary’ that can explain the significance of every motif.
To add to the complexity, some lines are simply decorative, and therefore ‘nonsense’ according to the purists.
Seydou tells me the symbols in the stencils I chose for my living room upholstery represent happy people, the unity of husband and wife, and people working together to make the world a better place. All sounds rather perfect. I’m hoping he’s telling the truth and that I’m not going to end up with sofas and cushions depicting female circumcision, blood sacrifices or anything else I am uncomfortable with. Fortunately it looks so good, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Take a look at our post The Many Colours of Mudcloth to see the range of colours that can be achieved using the bogolan technique.