Among the many styles of apparel that artists make with bogolan, the boubou is most commonly used. Upon reaching adulthood, young men receive boubous, or shepherds’ tunics, and once they have become an honorary figure in their society they add a shawl to make it a grand boubou. Traditional boubous are large sheets of cloth, sewn with only three seams to make sleeves and a collar. In the post-colonial era, the boubou has been adopted as the men’s national dress.
Baba Berthé wearing bogolan. Photo by Meghan Hiscock
Other varieties of products include kaasa, utilitarian wool weavings, the softest and most valued of which come from lamb wool and are usually made into either white wool blankets or black shepherd tunics. Arkilajii are large wall hangings or blankets made of wool or a blend of wool and cotton, decorated with celestial signs and animals that illustrate the bond between humans and nature. Fulani weavers specialize in the complicated arkila kerka mosquito covering for the nuptial bed, which takes a month and a half to make. Arkila jango, a Tuareg dowry item, encircles the family tent, protecting it from the elements.
Wearing bogolan clothing today often marks a significant, life-changing event, such as a coming of age ritual or marriage. Black strips of fabric that ward off illness are sewn into the vulnerable areas of the chest or spine as protection. Muslim and Maghreb influences have added baggy pants, big tunics, cloth hats, turbans, and slippers to the repertoire of Malian attire.
Mud cloth patterns have become a language in and of themselves. Bogolan painters become storytellers, combining symbols to convey a story or legend. Region-specific symbols abound, but the best-known symbols—often of kings, brave warriors, nobles, hunters, mothers, slaves, and griots—are most common. Wall hangings often celebrate historic events or emphasize attributes of the heroes of Malian oral tradition.