After exploring the hotel and a quick lunch, Cherif piled us back into the bus for a quick excursion. I won’t lie…I was irritated. I was tired and full and really just wanted to sit and talk under our little pagoda and enjoy the breeze. Little did I know this would be one of the coolest trips we’ve made thus far. Cherif took us to a series of older looking adobe buildings and ushered us inside. The architecture and light were enough to get me excited. It was absolutely stunning. A cloudless sky which emphasized the glorious orange color of the buildings. Breathtaking.
We were met by a man who quickly explained to us that we were at a school/guild (of sorts) for traditional textile artists who specialized in bogolan (or mudcloth), basilan, and gala. They weave the cloth themselves, then dye it using various natural resources (often leaves), and finally paint it.
Now, bogolan happens to be one of the few things I knew about prior to my trip to Mali. Mali is known (as I think I’ve said before) for its textiles, and my mom (being a textile artist) excitedly pulled three books off our shelves last summer when I indicated that I might be going to Mali. Mud cloth is one of Mali’s oldest and richest textile traditions – artisans begin a 3 week process of removing clay from the river, preserving it in a jar and kneading it from time to time with a mixture of wôlô and nyama leaves. (I haven’t figured out the French or English names for these two, but something tells me they aren’t easily accessible in the States.) They then decorate the cloth with this clay mixture. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but I figured I’d skim the details. Let me know if you want to know more.) Decorations put on the cloth vary, but all are important symbols that can carry numerous societal or spiritual meanings. Bogolan also (apparently) serves (served?) a huge societal role in Malian culture due to the symbolism it carries. Furthermore, in addition to making traditional pieces, this group of artisans also make contemporary bogolan. Contemporary bogolan started to emerge when the demand for “pagnes” (a sort of popular Malian skirt) shot through the roof. Created by the many women who became artisans in response to this demand, they began to employ different (faster) techniques in creating the bogolan, as well as used motifs and symbols that weren’t traditionally used.
Anyways, the man we met showed us around, explained how they died the cloth, what different symbols meant, what different buildings or structures were used for, etc. He also showed us a museum which had samples of the different textiles they make, as well as an exhibition of the materials and methods for reaching their final product. And this was so cool because it includes the LOOM. Ah how I wished my dear mother could have seen it. I think I payed more attention to that dear old thing than anyone, but it was just so cool. Like I said, I live with a textile artist – a weaver to be more specific and I have vivid memories of hearing the shuttle fly back and forth to Etta James and Vince Gueraldi as she prepped for her Christmas show. Compared to the looms I’ve seen, this looked like a bunch of sticks, but it totally works and they manage to create some really fine fabrics with it. Note, also, that the MEN do the weaving. I think in the Western world the textile arts are generally considered a stereotypically “feminine” medium just as sculpture has a rep for being masculine (not that I buy/support these stereotypes – I don’t). At any rate this is NOT the case in Mali. For one, I have yet to meet a female tailor, but furthermore, it is traditionally the men’s job to weave the fabric and women (at least when making basin – another great/interesting Malian textile tradition) do the dying and painting. Here, the vast majority of the students and craftsmen seemed to be men, however, so I think we can say they do pretty much all the work.
This, it turns out, is one of the best places to get ahold of basilan, bogolan and gala. All the pieces are handmade (using traditional methods and materials), unique, and better priced than anywhere else. They also use bogolan and textile traditions to create incredible contemporary art pieces – playing with different traditional and contemporary symbols as well as form and representation.
Suffice to say, I totally adored this place. It was totally up my alley, which was a nice change. I didn’t have the pleasure of studying Malian textile in my African Art class, so it was really fascinating and exciting for me (especially after learning about other textile traditions such as the Zulu and Xhosa beadwork, or Yoruba textiles). And I spent a TON of cash. Couldn’t resist. To many pretty things! Ended up with some gala and basilan, as well as a book on the group and “L’evolution des teintes naturelles”. We’ll be back to visit again in February during the Grand Voyage, and I’ve already extracted a promise from Cherif that we can go back so I can talk to the artisans and pick up some bogolan. Because I totally have an inexhaustible supply of cash…not really, but this is worth it!
K’an ben! Farima