11-Segou Bogolan Workshop-Applying Bleach-Soap Mixture_825x768SYNOPSIS:  Bogolan and Bògòlanfini – the Malian tradition of mud-cloth making.  The sad present and the glorious past and how I was allowed to make a piece of my own.

After a long and sweaty morning looking at the few nice, but not overwhelming sites of Segou, I reached the Bogolan Galerie Soroble.  A neo-traditional building made of the red clay so typical of this area, and with the traditional turret architecture stuck out in the otherwise colonial neighborhood of Segou.

The entrance was quite something:  From a full sized, arched entrance door the ceiling came down steeply, leaving an opening at the end of a short corridor big enough to get through only when you crouched down all the way.  I stepped into a pleasant courtyard and looked for signs of life, which I found to my left in a room where four young men were working on four large tables bent over four bogolan, or traditional Malian mud cloths.

May I look around?  I introduced myself with the usual excuse that I did not speak French and was pleasantly surprised to find Suleiman, the master of the workshop, speaking enough English for us to communicate.   He even knew a few German words he picked up when he had been sent to represent Malian traditional culture in a German-Mali exchange.   And as it turned out, the town he visited was Erfurt, in former East Germany, just like my native Dresden.  So we bonded.

I explained that I was a teacher but here to learn and asked if Suleiman would explain the process to me.   And he did.  I got out my notebook and this is what I heard:

The traditional bogolan cloth was black and white.  It now has expanded into 3-4 colors ranging from yellow to sandy light brown, to chocolate brown for the base of the cloth and the black and white application of designs.  But even that is open to expansion and experimentation and the mixing of new ingredients such as ashes to produce new colorations,but all earth-tones.

Quite literally, bogolan is a dirt-cheap process.  All the ingredients are natural and produced locally.  What makes it so special is the incredibly labor-intensive process used in the genuine product – as always these days anything can be mass and machine-produced, and it is.   But here I was looking at the real thing: 

Leaves, bark, mud, soap and bleach are the ingredients which ultimately, in a complex process taking up to a year in its preparatory stage, are used to create incredible earth-tone designs both using traditional symbolism or inventing modern designs.

Leaves come from the Golama tree (that’s what the name sounded to me), are shredded, pounded and soaked for days to produce a sap that provides the yellow base color.  Bark of the Beku tree (again, I cannot verify the actual species of trees but am using a transliteration of what I heard) is cooked for many hours to produce a sap which is dark brown.  Combinations of the leaves and the bark can create more orange tones, while ashes mixed in with the bark turns the light brown into a deep chocolate brown, and so forth. 

Mud, which has been fermented with some secret ingredient and stored for up to a year is applied with bamboo sticks of varying widths and as it soaks in and is exposed to the sun, turns the base color of the cloth black.  And finally, if you take a mixture of soap and bleach – a bit of a short-cut from other more traditional ways of bleaching – you can create white.  With bamboo sticks and tooth brushes these four men were at work at the various designs.  This was fascinating! 

As I scribbled all of this down and walked around with Suleiman from one end of the compound to the next it also became clear how deserted and run down this workshop was.  Everything was dusty.  In many areas, the mud was falling off the walls, stairs were broken, and ceilings had gaping holes.  The weaving studio was deserted and the gorgeous roof terrace which my guide book (now 8 years old) described as a lively restaurant was all but boarded up and in shambles!  

Suleiman wistfully remembered the past:  26 people were working here full time; now there are four and they are scraping by.   There used to be a huge four-room gallery and hallways filled with their art for sale for the about 60 tourists that would come through here every day.  Now, a few dusty leftovers were hanging in all but the main front gallery.  The restaurant had ranked among the most beautiful spots in Segou to overlook the Niger.  For two full years, there has not been a single tourist.  A few “white people” who work on various projects in Mali are still in town and once in a while somebody comes by; the last one three months ago!  I was the first visitor in three months and the first tourist in two years!  There was no money even for the most basic upkeep.  And traditional architecture like this needs annual upkeep. 

This was so depressing.  I think if you multiply this, it gives you a good insight into the state of the tourist-fueled Malian economy as a whole.   I experienced similar things with the few restaurants in town that were listed and recommended in the guide book – gone.

When we returned to the workshop I expected the tour to be over, but Suleiman pointed to a small piece of cloth and offered me to make my own piece if I had the time.   Of course, I have time!  And so I spent 2 hours, not nearly enough to produce a good piece – as usually the dying, drying, bleaching and application each take multiple hours and multiple layers – to make my own.   It isn’t a masterpiece but I was thrilled to experience the actual process, the techniques, and the pitfalls – any, even the tiniest mistake is irreparable! 

My piece looks faint next to the rich and deep colors of the master’s creations.    The sun and time were not allowed to work their magic.  And those two, are as essential natural ingredients of this magic and ancient process as the leaves, the bark, and the mud.

Many of the designs used by this male bogolan team go back to the much more ancient tradition of the female sacred art of bogolanfini which has nearly died out.   There is the zig-zag life line design – life has its ups and downs.  There is the Dogon earth, sun and cosmos design.  There are fertility symbols, wealth, and magic protection designs.  And there are new designs leaving it up to these young artists to come up with their own.  Suleiman showed me one of his, incorporating traditional geometric patterns he formed an abstracted mighty bird spanning an entire full-sized cloth of 1.5 x 2.5 meters.  He wanted to express the mass migration of many young Malians from troubled areas to safer places and even abroad and express hope that eventually they will come back like migrating birds which never leave home for good. 

What a great day this was.   This is my kind of an experience;I could not have made a better choice than to come here.   This alone was worth the trip to Segou, an otherwise nice but now overwhelmingly exciting place.

If you ever go to Mali, don’t miss this art.   Segou is not the only place where bogolan is produced.  The most famous center is in San.  But other places have workshops, too.   And for this team of four, I hope that the Malian zig-zag will work for them and that soon life and that means tourism, will turn into an upswing again.   They need it!

Good night.

6 comments so far

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  1. Maria, I think you hit exactly on the event the workshop manager in Segou was talking about. He referred to ERFURT – your hometown, specifically. What a small world. ET

  2. How lucky to find someone you could communicate with! Did you get to talk with him about Islam? After all, he has a Moslem name.
    Considering that there have been no tourists for two years, how do these people subsist? What sor of income do they have, if any? How are goods and services exchanged when the mainstay of the economy doesn’t exist?

  3. Here the German website that shows the mudd cloth paintings and collaboration with German artists. http://jungesafrika.de/blog-2/

  4. Wow! What a treasured experience but holding sadness as the artists try so desperately to hold on with hope that a good life will return once more.

  5. Your element, precisely. The look on your face as you are making your bogolan is as I would describe: ET in heaven…in her element…doing what she loves. And your cloth is really cool, beautiful! I can see that time and process would be required to get the deep, rich colors…but as I see/interpret it, your design of the male and female elements of the psyche, interwoven into one perfect (hopefully) whole, soaring upward full of joy yet firmly anchored to their base, is wonderful…just wonderful. And the unifying figure at the top between the male and female figures…really the whole thing is so Elisabethian…primitive yet complex with a story (lesson) to be explored in it.
    What a great day you had…to be treasured in ET’s book of incredible adventures.

  6. Your experience in Segou is made so much richer to me as I learn more about ancient civilizations through my Coursera class on archaeology! We can speculate on the daily life of long-gone peoples from the bits and pieces left behind, but we forget there are pockets of places like Segou that still practice these wonderful techniques and traditions. Thank you for such a thorough and insighful description of the artistic bogolan process. I look forward to seeing your cloth.