Silhouettes and symbols

A Word A Week: Silhouette

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I was forced to raid the Team Leader’s overland photo files for this shot. It is one of my favourites and was taken in Mali, just south of Timbuktu on the banks of the mighty Niger River.  In West and Central Africa, rivers are super-highways, the means by which most business and travel are done. They are also an essential source for the watering of humans, livestock and farm fields. Many people also make their living from fishing, pot and brick-making, and then there is the making of bogolanfini, the famous mudcloth of the Bamana people; this is a craft that  requires both mud and copious amounts of water.

It struck me too, that the traditional patterns that are used to decorate bogolanfini are also silhouettes of sorts: the dark background used as a foil to the recurring signifiers and abstract imagery that make up the design.


This piece of mudcloth usually drapes over the back of  our kitchen sofa. The fabric is made from Malian cotton, woven by men into narrow strips 15cm by 1.5 metres. These are then sown together to make a wrap about 1 metre wide.

In the past, the dyeing and the design were women’s work, but these days bogolanfini is made by both men and women, much of it simplified versions of traditional designs and made specifically for the tourist and export market. The piece above is typical of tourist mudcloth.

The central motif, the joined up ‘EEEs’ is called crocodile fingers. The >>>> pattern on the borders is called wosoko and said to relate to a specific event, that of a farmer who had a sickle he especially liked and thought should have its own pattern. The circles with dots inside represent love of family and community: the large circle is the home, and the dot inside the family.

In the past, too, the messages drawn on the cloth were not only more intricate, but also held more complex meanings that related to Bamana history and custom. The obvious motif references to streams, hills, animals, might have many layers of meaning. The wearing of the wraps had sacred significance too, some made to be worn by girls undergoing initiation into womanhood, others for women who had just given birth, or who had died in childbirth. These were usually black and white, and believed to have protective qualities.

Cloth dyed with ochre- and red-coloured mud was favoured by hunters since it provided good camouflage in the bush.The fabric below is part of a waistcoat. Again, I imagine that this piece was made for the tourist market, or possibly commissioned especially by the Kenyan fashion house Kiko Romeo where I bought the waistcoat. To my eye, though, this is a pleasing abstraction of a giraffe’s lovely hide.


The processes for making mudcloth have also been simplified to cater for mass market demands. This means that anyone can pick up the basics of the craft in a fairly short time. Traditionally, the apprenticeship might take years, daughters learning from mothers and grandmothers. But all is not lost. Artists like Nakunté Diarra are still maintaining authentic methods, which she has passed on to her son and granddaughter.

The process begins by soaking the plain undyed cotton in a decoction of crushed leaves and bark from the Anogeissus leiocarpa tree and the woody shrub Combretum glutinosum. This turns the cloth yellow and acts as a mordant to fix the mud dye. Once the cloth has dried, river mud that has been fermented in pots for up to a year, is applied to it. The designs are painted on using a stylus-like instrument. The cloth is again dried and washed, and the mud re-applied, then washed and dried once more. Finally, the remaining yellow areas are treated by painting over them with caustic soda to whiten them and make them stand out against the dark background. It takes two to three weeks to make a cloth.

If you want to see mudcloth making in action go to the video link below for a tour of the Coulibaly workshop in Burkina Faso where techniques were learned from a Malian grandmother.


A traditionally made wrap by Kouraba Diarra. Photo: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.


tumblr_m5r7haSBuZ1rwcwkxo1_1280New-wave bogolanfini at Djenne, Mali. Photo: Art of Afrika



Dr. Y’s  African Heritage blog at:


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© 2013 Tish Farrell