Mali may be world-renowned as the site of the mystical Timbuktu, especially following the most recent events. But just as fascinating is the country’s national design heritage which has transcended generations – the intricate fabric, mudcloth. Known locally as bògòlanfini or bogolan, this hand-dyed cloth is sacred to the Bamana people of Mali and symbolizes their history and cultural heritage – of particularly significance with the country finally gaining its independence in 1960. The fabric has since become a symbol of national pride.
WOVEN IN TIME
You will not find any two mudcloth fabrics exactly the same. This has to do with the unique and labour-intensive manufacturing process whereby the cloth is made using fermented mud. The word bògòlanfini literally translates to bogo meaning “mud” or “earth”, lan meaning “by means of” and fini which means “cloth”. The men of the Bamana tribe weave the fabric while the women dye the cloth. This is typically done during the dry season between October and May. Agricultural activities slow down during this time leaving more time to devote to craftwork like cloth-making and pottery.
The process itself is most fascinating. After the cloth is woven, it is left to soak in a bath of mashed-up leaves from the n’gallama tree, native to the region.Once the fabric has turned a yellowish colour, it is left to dry in the sun. Once it is dried out, the cloth is painted in intricate patterns using mud which has been left to ferment in a clay pot for over a year. An interesting chemical reaction occurs between the dyed fabric and the mud, so that after the mud is cleaned off, only the stained brown patterns remain. The yellow-coloured dye is lastly removed from the unpainted fabric with bleach which leaves the cloth white. After a length of time, the paint changes to different hues of rich browns and orange-toned colours.
MUCLOTH GOES GLOBAL
One Malian designer who has been influential in bringing mudcloth to the rest of the world is the late fashion ingénue, Chris Seydou. This native of Mali’s Koulikoro province moved to Paris in 1971 where he first worked under iconic French designer Yves Saint-Laurent and then alongside Spanish designer Paco Rabanne. Seydou is still celebrated for his exemplary efforts in introducing bògòlanfini to the world, and is further credited with founding the African Federation of Fashion Creators in 1993 (just one year before his death due to a short illness).
And judging by the enormous popularity of this fabric in the Western world, Seydou would be proud. In support of Project Red, the anti-AIDS organisation fronted by U2 singer Bono, sneaker brand Converse created a limited edition shoe in African mudcloth in 2006. The design of the sneaker was inspired by legendary Malian mudcloth artist Nakunte Diarra.
US First Lady Michelle Obama is no stranger to this trend, sporting the print on more than one occasion. She was first spotted aporting a mudcloth jacket while speaking in Chicago in 2006, followed by a mudcloth pencil skirt in Albuquerque that same year.
Other celebrities seen wearing the fabric are Rihanna, Solange Knowles and Rachel Bilson, who after being snapped carrying a Threads of Change iPad case in mudcloth, caused the product to swiftly sell outs. Also paying homage to the original creators of the fabric is US fashion designer Kevan Hall (famous for working with style mavens like Jordin Sparks, Vanessa Williams and Katherine Heigl). In 2008, Hall presented his “Africa: A Safari” Spring collection at Los Angeles Fashion Week, using mudcloth produced and manufactured in Mali.
French fashion label BCBG Max Azria is known for drawing inspiration from the African continent. In their Spring/Summer 2012 collection, the designers featured prints and patterns inspired by mudcloth. One fitted mudcloth-inspired trenchcoat from Max Mara’s Spring 2010 collection proved a fan favourite amongst customers. Designer Rachel Roy, known for her chic and classic pieces, also drew inspiration from the Malian traditional fabric in her Spring 2009 collection and infused mudcloth with a touch of Western modernity.
Also adapting the West African print was Australian design duo Sass and Bide. In their Fall/Winter 2011 collection, the edgy designers borrowed heavily from the authentically Malian print, even infusing mudcloth with colourful tie-dye. Further inspiration from mudcloth could also be seen in collections from Bottega Veneta, Proenza Schouler and even Donna Karan.
Then, of course, there is the stunning mudcloth dress by House of Deréon that singer Beyoncé wore during a photo shoot with L’Officiel magazine. The shoot drew attention for different reasons however as Beyoncé’s skin was darkened to a dark brown colour. The uproar over the photo shoot may have died down, but it helped to shine a spotlight on a fabric steeped in culture. And that’s priceless.
For further reading on this fabric, visit http://www.mnh.si.edu/africanvoices/mudcloth/index_flash.html
Contributor: Lesleigh Kivedo