Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mud in the Cloth . . .

I've become immensely interested in hand dyeing of cloth - from the natural dyeing done historically and even today in some parts of the world to the present dyes that can be used to make beautiful cloth in designs so lovely they look painted.

So when I came across the notice of some mud cloth for sale by a private person, my heart began to beat rapidly in anticipation of the soon-to-be adventure to hopefully be the first person to contact the owner of the mud cloth.  As it worked out, i was, and so off to Lincoln Heights (up near Los Angeles) I went in the early morning,.  Once I got to the area, the trip up the hills that seemed to go straight up, and that were super narrow (barely one car's width), it just made the trip even more exciting.  I am not the bravest soul when it comes to steep hills and certainly not the world's best driver any more to go around corners barely wide enough for one car, let along two.
When I arrived on site, I realized that  this lady was an artist as well, and her house and its overall environment around the outside was absolutely artsy and comfy.  I felt as though I could have known her for many years.  I had brought cash as I didn't want anything to hold up the sale.  My eyes lit up as I saw the wonderful five panels of mud cloth. I immediately handed her the cash, and my hands greedily closed over my treasure.  We continued to sit and talk as I gently massaged the cloth with my fingers, learning what I could through feeling it.
I have heard of mud cloth for years, and had seen many photos of it, but in truth, I knew very little about it.  I was fascinated by its name. Was it in fact really dyed with mud, and if so, how did it get this black look with such clear cream areas of designs?  So of course once I got it home, I had to research mud cloth on every site I could find.  The story of mud cloth is even more interesting than I could possibly have imagined.

Mud cloth, as we might call it, is more formally called Bogolanfini (“Bo-ho-lahn-FEE-nee”). It is made by the Bamana people who inhabit a large area to the east and north of Bamako in Mali, Africa. Bamako is the capital, as well as the largest city in Mali, which lies on the Niger River near the rapids that divide the Upper and Middle Niger Valleys, in the southwestern part of the country.  The name Bamako comes from the Bambara word that means 'Crocodile River." The origin of this cloth is believed to lie in the Beledougou region of central Mali.

To me, it is important to know about the country from which this complex dye process originated. Could such a dye process (which I will shortly discuss in depth) have originated from a truly primitive culture?  This has always been something at the forefront of my thinking. At what point does a culture lose its label of primitive?  I believe when the people of the country are doing any complex processes, or have an advanced political, religious or other system, they can no longer be considered primitive. So we will take a short look at the history of Mali and the city of Bamako.

The area of the city has been continuously inhabited for more than 150,000 years. The fertile lands of the Niger River Valley provided the people with an abundant food supply. Early kingdoms in the area grew wealthy as they established trade routes that crossed  west Africa and lead to northern Africa and Europe. By the 11th century the Ghana Empire became the first kingdom to dominate the area. Bamako had become a major marketplace, and a center for Islamic scholars, with the establishment of two universities and numerous mosques in medieval times.

The Empire of Mali grew during the early Middle Ages and replaced Ghana as the dominant kingdom in west Africa, dominating Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Mauritania. During the  14th century the Mali Empire became increasingly wealthy because of the trade of cotton and salt. Eventually the Songhai Empire succeeded the Mali Empire. In the 16th century Berber invaders from Morocco destroyed what remained of the kingdoms in Mali and trans-Saharan trade was taken over by sailors.

The French dominated much of West Africa starting in the late 19th century.in 1883, present-day Mali became part of the colony of French Sudan, and was its capital in 1908. Cotton and rice farming was encouraged through large irrigation projects and a new railroad connected Mali to Dakar on the Atlantic coast. Mali was annexed at that time into French West Africa, a federation which lasted from 1895 to 1959. Mali gained its independence in 1960 and the Republic of Mali was established later.

In 1960s, Bamako turned to socialism and its growth was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. However, in 1980, after a number of years of poor economy and political upheaval, the citizens of Bamako and Mali campaigned for a  free market economy and multi-party democracy. The political climate of the country had more political and social upheaval, and in 1991, the increasing unrest led to a large scale protest march, and some 300 people were killed during a violent effort to suppress the march.

So here we have a country that has had a highly colorful and unstable growth history over the centuries, and yet, here we find that cotton is still being raised and this mud cloth is still being made.  It is interesting how the manufacturing and dyeing of this cloth has stayed in this area and not been assimilated into the cultural manufacturing of other surrounding areas.

Bogolanfini, or mud cloth is a living art form whose techniques and motifs have been passed down through the centuries, and is used to commemorate major life passages such as birth, marriages and death. Bamana hunters also wear Bogolanfini in the form of red mud cloth with leather amulets stitched on throughout, forceful visual symbols of the supernatural powers believed necessary for successful hunters to possess.

Each piece of mud cloth tells a story. No two pieces are alike and each pattern and color combination has a meaning. The symbols, arrangements, color as well as shape of the mud cloth are all meaningful, and define a person’s social status, character or occupation.

Cotton is grown locally, harvested, hand spun and prepared for the looming process. The men use small hand or double heddle looms, weaving the cotton into long strips (approx. 6" wide), called finimugu. Typically seven strips (this can range from 5 to 9 or more), are them sewn together selvage  to selvage to create panels ranging from 32” x 48” to 45” x 72”. Following the weaving and sewing the strips together, women usually take over preparation of the mud cloth.

The Process:

1. The woven and stitched panels are washed in boiling water to shrink them to their final size.

2. After the cotton is dried, it is soaked in a special solution of pounded leaves from the Bogolon or Cengura trees, which are native to Mali. The dark solution enables the fabric to absorb the mud dye. As it dries from this process, the cloth  takes on a yellowish color, which will fade slightly later on

3. The mud dye is made from iron rich mud that is collected from the bottoms of ponds, mixed with water, set aside and allowed to ferment for up to a year, which results in the mud becoming black. This mud is then used to paint saturated mud designs on the cloth.

4.  Sticks, reeds, strips of bamboo, palm fiber brushes, feathers and other tools are used to paint the mud onto the cloth., Only the background is painted leaving the design areas untouched. The active ingredient in the mud dye is the iron oxide, which is converted by tannic acid in the leaf solutions into a dye of iron tannate.

5.  Once the cloth is dry from the painting process, it will be washed, this time in a solution of leaves, grasses and herbs to ensure the mud is bound to the cloth. (This would be what we would consider the mordant in regular dyeing.)

6. Sometimes a second of third coat of the mud dye is applied to achieve darker or brighter color.

After all the coats of the mud dye have been set, the cloth washed and rinsed in a solution made from boiling leaves, which serves to further enhance and set the color.

8.  Bleaching is the final step in making mud cloth. A caustic soda called Sodani, is applied to the yellow areas of the cloth (the design), where the mud dye was not applied. This solution bleaches these yellow areas, leaving them white and enabling the design may stand out from the mud dyed areas.

It does not appear that artists were usually expected to produce original designs. The mark of a successful design was to be able to produce existing designs, or perhaps a novel but appropriate combination of existing designs.

Many of the individual motifs applied to sections of the cloth, or combinations of these motifs, have names. Some of the names are based on the appearance of a pattern, such as "fish bones", "little stars", or "squares.". A common pattern of a cross shape set diagonally within a square is called "Mauritanian woman's head-cushion" after the expensive embroidered leather cushions these women own. Such designs imply both femininity and wealth. A few designs have names which refer to aspects of women's daily experience, in particular to issues such as co-wives' rivalry in polygamous households.

As with many art forms that have in various world cultures, today some of the women painting mud cloth are using templates to create the design areas. Whether these arose on their own over time, or were introduced by some well-meaning outsider remains to be seen, but to me, the idea of mud cloth made in the traditional way vs the new techniques involving templates would make a difference in the overall value of the cloth.  The same would apply to colors since mud cloth today can be purchased in other colors besides the traditional. I certainly enjoy all ethnic pieces, but I really treasure the traditional pieces.

Although I purchased five of these pieces in all, I gave one to a very dear friend I know will treasure it as I will, so I am only showing four pieces. I also purchased a crazy quilt that is not in excellent shape, but it has many beautiful aspects, and I will share it and talk it about it in another post.

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