The Bogolan cloth from Mali used to be looked down upon, associated with rural, non-Islamic peasants. It has now been transformed into a symbol of national identity in Mali, even reaching mainstream fashion after influencing Parisian designers. Learn about the process, and then paint with real mud on a recycled, old t-shirt to recreate this traditional mud-dyed cloth from Mali. I also included an on-line, virtual mud cloth activity for the mud-averse.
Bògòlanfini comes from the Bambara language: bogo, meaning “earth” or “mud;” lan, meaning “with;” and fini, meaning “cloth.” It is the name used for a cloth decorated by women in the Bamana-speaking region of Mali, using dye made from mud and leaves to produce white designs outlines by a black/brown background. Find Mali on your map. Notice it is a landlocked country in west Africa. It is among the poorest in the world, but exports cotton and gold especially to China. It is a very dry, arid land with the Niger River being the major river cutting across the country; people around the river enjoy fishing and eating Nile perch. Many people speak French (offical language) or Bambara, but there are over 30 other languages spoken.
Making mud cloths is a cultural tradition among the Bamana regions, north and east of the capital Bamako. Plain white cotton cloth is woven by men, and the thin strips are sewn together to make shirts and robes. The main colors are black, grey, red, and white, though black is by far the most common among traditional bogolanfini. Women dye the cloths, and pass on the tradition to their daughters.
The in-depth process begins when women soak the cloths in a brown solution of special leaves and water, which dyes the cloth yellow. Once it dries in the sun, the women paint beautiful designs using special fermented mud, applied with bamboo and metal spatulas. One characteristic feature is that the artists paint the backgrounds onto the cloth, leaving the design to be the unpainted areas. When it is finished, they use water to wash away any excess mud. This is repeated, to darken the design. Finally, the undyed areas (that are yellowed) are bleached with a special solution, and the cloth dries in the sun.
A distinguished artist will have balance in their composition, a dark black color, and straight, even lines. Quickly, mass-produced mud cloths sold to tourists are often made using stencils or industrially manufactured methods. Here are numerous pictures of bogolanfini to inspire you: check out the details of the designs. You will find geometric shapes, stars, and lines.
Before you paint with mud to make your own mud cloth, make a virtual bogolanfini at this interactive, on-line activity from the Smithsonian Institute. You can sew your cloth, soak it, choose designs, paint and rinse it, and bleach to finish it. From your computer, print your final design as a keepsake!
If you’d prefer the real deal and you don’t mind getting messy- gather your supplies! You’ll need an old tshirt, a bucket of mud, black food coloring, and different paintbrushes, sticks, or other tools to apply the mud paint.
First, go to your nearest body of water and gather some mud (or make your own in your backyard!). Note: our mud was from a nearby bayou and was really, really smelly. Rotting organic material= lots of bacteria, so wash those hands afterwards:). In Mali, they use a special fermented mud that is high in iron oxide. We can mix in some black food coloring to darken the color.
Next, start painting! Some artists divide up the cloth into sections so they can make repeating patterns. Others use geometric shapes and lines to make their own free standing patterns. Different black dyes/food colorings might separate into different colors when in contact with the cloth. Ours had an outline of green that would seep out of the main black lines of mud. An unexpected but interesting detail! One characteristic of bogolan cloths is that the artists paint the background, and leave the details and designs white. Thinking about negative space is hard for little kids, so we looked at a lot of pictures to get ideas.
The mud paint will stain clothes and skin (from the food coloring). My daughter had such an clever observation when she was picking off some dried mud, and saw her stained skin: “This is just like henna mommy!” (we had henna at our first Diwali celebration this year).
Once the designs are painted on, let the cloths dry in the sun, as they do in Mali. The mud will dry out and the color will stain the cloth permanently. Once it has set, rinse off the mud and reveal the design! My kids say “It’s like mud tie-dye!” The colors are quite light, which is why in Mali they repeat the process several times, painting over the same designs to darken them. Enjoy this messy craft!