Bogolan is the Malian term for the art of producing mud cloth textiles. In the Bamana language it means “the effect of mud [on cloth]” (bogo mud, lan with, by means of.)
The technique involves drawing with clay on naturally dyed fabric to produce typically a reverse design (white on black). The tannins in the dye react with the iron in the Niger River mud to give a rich black. The clay provides an effective medium which allows the artist to control the drawing of the design and the areas where the chemical reaction takes place. A millet-based bleach is used to heighten the contrast.
The dyes used in Mali are derived from the bark and leaves of indigenous trees, mainly of the Combretaceae family. The mud or clay in taken from the Niger River, which runs through the middle of Mali, and has the particular properties (especially high iron content ) which produces the heightened black. Centres of bogolan making are Djenne, Segou and San, as well as the capital Bamako where it is taught in the colleges.
Traditional bogolan cloths or bogolan fini were originally used for hunters’ clothes and the designs feature a range of symbolic markings whose significance is still valued, if variously interpreted. The patterns are designed as a maze to entrap evil spirits and protect the wearer. Contemporary bogolan exploits a variety of mainly yellow/orange/ brown dyes and freer, non-traditional designs.
Researching the technique
On my first trip to Mali in February 2006 I was able to bring back a quantity of Niger mud. Since then I have experimented with natural dyes and locally sourced clays. Apart from the practicality of local sourcing it has been important to me to replicate the sense of connection with the landscape present in the Malian processes. Hence natural dyes - onion skins, walnut husks, flowering cherry bark (from the garden) - and the use of garden clay and London clay from building trenches. However I have had to use chemicals in the form of tannic acid and ferrous sulphate (which nonetheless occur naturally), in order to achieve the required intensity of colour.
I use the bogolan clay technique to produce my own designs based on my own personal vocabulary of signs and images. These have been evolved over a number of years from digital imagery and my researches into Moroccan tapestry, West African wax print cloth and prehistoric European visual culture.
For a free worksheet of making Bogolan at home or for a school project, contact me via this web site.