The Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco recently featured the exhibit Rhythm and Hues: Cloth and Culture of Mali, highlighting the West African country's extraordinary legacy of textile arts. The exhibit allowed fabric aficionados to explore Mali's captivating textile heritage – which, with archeological evidence dating back to the 11th century, has long been a part of life in Mali.
Museum visitors learned that Mali is home today to more fiber artists and designers than most countries in the world. The show, curated by Cynthia LeCount Samake, a specialist in festival costume and traditional textiles, highlighted both the vibrant color and bold graphics that are a part of artisanal Malian clothing.
LeCount Samaké kicked off the exhibit with samples of mudcloth or bogolan fini
. Historically, bogolan fini
had an important role among the Bambara people, who believed in the cloth's protective powers. Bogolan fini
is hand-woven cotton fabric that has been dyed with applications of various plant infusions and mud. LeCount Samaké points out that it's no longer worn as clothing by contemporary Malians, but many of the patterns and designs are now printed on factory woven textiles. Bogolan fini is still widely made, though now as decorative fabric often meant for tourists and collectors, along with some export sales.
Most of the cloth in contemporary Malian fashion is patterned with various tie and dye or stitch-resist methods. Malian dyers will bind off material with rubber bands, strips of inner tube and plastic bags that protect it from the dye. That's the fun part, but the process becomes more time-consuming and can even build a little muscle. Once dyed, the fabric is rinsed, washed and starched, and then hung on a clothesline to dry. Afterwards it's pounded with heavy wooden mallets over a semi-circular round of a thick, smooth log embedded in the ground. According to LeCount Samaké, this technique realigns the fibers in the cloth, closes holes from needles, and flattens and smoothes the cloth. It can also produce a surface sheen, which is often highly valued.
LeCount Samaké has included in the exhibit mannequins wearing festive outfits that showcase exquisite and vibrant grand boubous--a piece of cloth folded in half with the neck cut out--and explains that Malians wear these elegant garments for very special occasions such as wedding and baptisms. A boubou, though, can be worn anytime the wearer wants to look well turned out. Men's and women's styles are different in shape, length and embellishment.
Grand boubous are typically made from the highest quality cotton damask and are usually decorated with intricate floral or geometric designs embroidered with silk or cotton thread. Some grand boubous are made using the farafaranie or patchwork technique, while others have intricate designs made by using the stitched-resist dyeing technique, or siri-li in Bambara.
This method is the most time and labor intensive. LeCount Samaké said, "Typically it's the men who do the resist-stitching because their hands are considered stronger to pull the stitches tightly. Once the piece has been dyed and rinsed, the stitching must be cut with a razor blade and loads of patience."
Rhythm and Hues also explored the important role of factory-printed cloth in daily life. Numerous social issues, current, and evolving cultural trends are reflected in these fabrics. These printed graphics may announce a special holiday or contain proverbs praising the virtues of prayer and clean living. LeCount Samaké notes that people choose these fabrics deliberately. Graphic prints with phrases and logos express critical information, such as political beliefs, educational institutions and affiliations, or social views and public health concerns, and also endorse politicians with printed messages and pictures, and even recognize the accomplishments of world leaders like President Obama.
Health, education and feminist issues also make appearances on clothing. The most popular in textile print include International Women's Day, AIDS awareness campaigns, and even a USAID sponsored cloth that says "An educated girl is a good mother and an ideal spouse." LeCount Samaké said, "Fortunately girls' education has begun to get more support recently in Mali."
In addition to the fabric and clothing, the exhibit also showcased other forms of traditional art and craft from Mali, including life-sized masked and costumed figures or “marionettes” that are used to act out village legends about heroic or virtuous deeds. This form of storytelling is used as part entertainment and part teaching device.
Thanks to LeCount Samaké's expertise in all things Malian, Rhythm and Hues gave long overdue recognition to contemporary Malian fabric artisans and their contribution to textile design.
For more information about Rhythm and Hues, visit www.mocfa.org.