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Malian Bogolan

By Meghan Hiscock, 2011 Katzenberger Art History Intern, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

This online exhibition draws upon the documentation of Malian artists who participated in the 2003 and 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festivals. In 2003, the country of Mali was a featured program in the Festival. In 2011, several Malian artists represented their craft as part of the Peace Corps Festival program.

In the Malian language, Bambara, the full word bogolanfini breaks into three parts: bogo meaning mud or clay, lan meaning with, and fini meaning cloth. Bogolan is easily confused with other folk dying techniques, such as batik or tie dye. What distinguishes the bogolan method of design application is that the artist paints the background a dark color, leaving the outline of the pattern untouched.

Originating in the town of Beledougou, which still produces some of the most beautiful and intricate designs, bogolan has since spread to other towns such as San, Koutiala, Sikasso, Djenne and the Lake Debo region. As renowned bogolan artist Nakunté Diarra explained it, “since God created the world…Bogolan was there.” A longstanding tradition and point of national pride, bogolan and its patterns have represented the history of the Bamara people for generations. The skills and techniques artists have been using for centuries are passed down through intergenerational rituals. Craftsmen in Mali are considered sacred or magical because of their material-altering nature, completing work “begun by God,” as Malians say.

As clothing, textiles protect the body and convey social status, age, gender, and religion through the amount of material used, weaving quality, garment length, and decoration. They are considered precious items that are kept tightly guarded because they are worn so close to the body; if left unattended, an article of clothing could fall into the hands of a sorcerer or enemy who might then harm the wearer. A very worthy and respected profession, over 60 percent of Malian artisans worked with textiles in 2003. Today, bogolan lives on through the tourist market, in the fashion world, and through the work of contemporary Malian folk and fine artists. 

Click to enlarge and view captions

The Malian mud cloth crew at the 2011 Folklife Festival. From left to right: Issa Téssougué, Baba Berthé, Moussa Fofana, Oumar Cissé, and Hamadoun (Simbè) Sankaré. Photo by Meghan Hiscock