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).
Korhogo is made by the Senufo people of the Côte d’Ivoire, and are named after the village of Korhogo in the northern part of the country. Entering a Korhogo village, the visitor is met with hundreds of such pieces of aartwork attached to mud-brick walls and spread on the ground.
The korhogo style originally started as wall paintings at the various shrines in the area. The wall paintings usually wore off in no time because they were painted with natural dyes that did not last. The need to prolong the life of drawings on the walls of shrines in the town inspired the subculture of cloth-making, and over time, the Senufo people developed an indigenous cottage industry in fabric production.
They divide the fabric production processes along gender lines. Both men and women may tend the cotton plants. After harvest, the women usually clean and spin the cotton into yarns. Men then weave the rough yarns into strips about four inches wide, using hand looms. Several strips are sewn together to make a “canvas.” Women make the dyes that the men use to design the cloth. Korhogo cloth has fairly loose weave and sometimes stretches during machine stitching, although the amount of stretching varies with each piece of fabric. The cloth has an obvious weave and looks similar to raw silk.
The woven cloth is stretched very flat on a board and secured by means of small pegs. Without any preliminary sketch, the designer traces the designs with his knife after having dipped it into the dye. The first lines are very fine; they are subsequently reinforced by new tracings. In more recent times, this is done using a stencil and the painting is done with a specially fermented solution that slowly turns black.
Traditionally, the mud decoration is produced using the application of two natural dyes. The first of these dyes is made from boiled leaves and is greenish-yellow in color; the second is formed from decayed swamp mud extracted from the roots of trees. An iron-bonding agent in the mud is said to cause the dye to interact with the coarse fibres and thereby create a permanent color. The mud decoration is hand painted onto the cloth using a stencil.
In another process a yellowish solution that contains a dye from the nigeneme tree is painted directly, without preliminary sketching, onto the cloth. The cloth is immersed in a black dye obtained from the marigot, a pool or muddy place in a stream bed. When washed later, only the surface covered by the nigeneme dye retains the black dye. The nigeneme dye makes the black dye fast and permanent. Artists also paint directly with a mixture of dyes and banga and juice from lemon. Banga is a strong solution which helps to make the dye permanent. This dye produces rich magenta-red and burnt sienna hues when mixed with the ingredients.
Originally the korhogo cloth was used for religious purposes, but never worn. The designs on the cloth will always represent a cherished ideal, favored celebration or give honor to respected animals. Nowadays korhogo fabrics are used for clothes, pillows, and wall decorations, with black ink used in place of dyes, and machine-woven fabric in place of natural cotton.
Some common korhogo symbols
Tree: The tree represents the sacred woods where Poro ceremonies take place.
Snake: The snake is a symbol of the earth which he encircles with his tail in his mouth. This circle represents the world; the day the snake lets go of his tail the world will cease to exist. The snake is often represented in different Senufo art objects, especially jewellery such as bracelets and rings. The Senufo constantly remind West Africans that their existence is tied to the slightest gesture of the snake.
Goat: the goat evokes male sexual power. It is often a liturgical subject for the Senufo sculptor who makes the statue for certain propitiatory rites by the priestess of the Poro women’s school.
Crocodile: this signifies the fertility of the male. According to folktales, there was a sacred crocodile in the waters of Korhogo whose back was decorated with cowries. He appeared every ten years to announce future events. The ten years correspond to the ten days of the creation of the world in the Senufo religion.
Guinea Fowl: birds in general have important roles, being animals associated with celestial powers. The guinea fowl and the chicken represent maternal virtues and feminine beauty.
Hunter: the hunter signifies life’s mysteries.
Bird: the bird signifies freedom.
Swallow: a Senufo chief must always have swallows in his home. With the swallows he makes sacrifices to win the trust of the population and power over them.
Fish Bone: fish bones indicate inevitable drought, thirst and famine.
Fish: this signifies vitality and abundance. Where there are fish, there is bound to be water–vital in a drought-prone area such as northern Côte d’Ivoire.
Lion: the lion signifies royalty. The specialist in religion used lion eyes mixed with other elements to inspire fear of the chief and submission of the people.
Chameleon: the chameleon has an important dual role. Its evil side is the messenger of death and the leprosy carrier. Its good side permits the chameleon to cure epilepsy.
Turtle: the turtle is considered one of the first animals created. It is believed that its slowness indicates its fear that the earth will crumble under his feet.
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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