All over the world, cultures create fabrics whose designs (woven, painted, or printed) are not merely decorative, but significant—that is, they tell histories, identify their villages of origin, incorporate information about the weaver or the wearer, possess sacred meaning, and so on.
Three of the West African fabric designs are bogolanfini (Mali), korhogo (Côte d’Ivoire) and the fon appliqué (Benin). See also Adinkra and Ga Samai.
Bogolanfini, a form that may be 800 years old, literally means “mud cloth,” from the Bamana words bogolan, meaning “something made using mud,” and fini, meaning “cloth.” The word hardly does it justice, though, as it has been described as the most influential ethnic fabric of the 1990s and its traditional designs (often representing a historical event or commemorating a local hero) have been used not only on fabrics but on furniture, book covers, wrapping paper and clothing.
Traditional bogolanfini production is a deliberate and labor-intensive process. The weavers, mainly men, produce narrow strips of fabric that are pieced together by women in a variety of sizes and styles for dyeing. The first round involves soaking in a dye bath made from milled or ground leaves, which turn the fabric yellow. The designs are then painted, using mud that has been carefully collected and fermented for up to a year, and thanks to a chemical reaction between the mud and the leaf dye, the designs remain even after the mud has been washed off.
Some of the most common designs, which may be combined in a single fabric, include:
Beds of Bamboo and Millet, originally used by women to show their superiority to their rivals in a typical West African polygamous marriage.
Farmer’s Sickle, supposedly based on an unusual design of a particular sickle.
Iguana’s Elbow, representing good luck, as the iguana can lead a hunter to water, and also stands for African warriors opposing foreign powers.
Wealth and Luxury, a design from the Mauritania area implying that women who own such cushions don’t need to work—they can just lie with their heads on the cushions with this pattern.
Brave and Fearless, a design representing a warrior belt believed to possess supernatural powers that make the wearer’s strength invincible.
Traditionally, bogolanfini fabrics were mainly used for making hunters’ shirts or tunics, women’s skirts and men’s sleeveless loose tops. In recent years, bogolanfini production has increased through industrial manufacture, but artists have also started expanding the repertoire of designs with their own inventions. As a result, bogolanfini designs are now found on coffee mugs, curtains, towels, sheets, book covers and wrapping paper.
This profile is a condensed version of “Decoding The Symbolism Of Bogolanfini, Korhogo And Fon Fabrics” by M. Akrofi, S. P. Ocran, and R. Acquaye.
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