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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Bamana (Mali)
Title: Woman's Skirt (tafé)
Medium: Cotton, mud, n'galaman and changora leaf dyes
Dimensions: 28 x 68 inches (71.1 x 172.7 cm)
Credit Line: Acquired through the Special Gifts Fund
Object Number: 87.012.001
Bamana people call this fabric bokolanfini or “mudcloth.” This bokolanfini skirt pattern, the Cheli Djou, is associated with married women.

The cloth was made in Mali, West Africa.

The materials needed to make bokolanfini (cotton, leaf dyes, and mud) are all available locally. After women prepare the raw cotton and men weave it into strips, the pieces are sewn together. Women dip the resulting creamy white fabric into a dye bath made from n’galaman and changora leaves and branches. The fabric emerges a bright yellow color, which is later washed away. (It is not known precisely why the makers undertake this step; it has been suggested that this initial dying makes the mud-staining less likely to bleed.) Women prepare a solution made from mud collected from pond floors and left to stand for a year. The dark mud is painted onto the fabric, leaving white-line designs.

Traditionally, mudcloth is made-to-order and is used for skirts or wraps called bokolan. Today the fabric is being produced on a large scale for sale in local and international markets. However, most Bamana women no longer use the bokolanfini for their bokolan. They prefer imported printed cloth for its comfort and ease in cleaning.

Made in a Kolokani style, which typically features sharply delineated lines and high contrast between the dark and light portions, this bokolanfini skirt features the most traditional and, in many ways, most valued mudcloth design. Women lay out the designs freehand and maintain consistent widths for the white lines. These white lines are not painted on; rather, the dark portions are painted, leaving areas of exposed fabric. Today, artists in Mali produce many styles of bokolanfini, such as genre scenes, images of animals, and patterns drawing upon a wider range of earth tones.

This bokolanfini skirt pattern, the Cheli Djou, is associated with married women. Its crisscross pattern of diamond-shaped lines is named after a locally made string bag called a cheli djou, which a newly married woman would use to transport her trousseau of cooking pots to her husband’s village. A stretched bag creates the string diamond design used on the skirt.

An open square design called the Dabiri So, means “to cover the opening.” On a married woman’s skirt, the pattern may imply that the couple should endeavor to protect each other, as well as members of their extended families.

The design that recalls an iron cross, the Baarafeere So, refers to the white flowers of the Baara gourd plant. The very large gourds produced by the Baara plant are used as containers for the newlywed woman to store and carry her trousseau of cotton skirts.

The hourglass design called the Dongangolo is named after a traditional drum used by a griot on the occasion of a successful marriage or circumcision.

The diagonal incomplete rectangle pattern placed within the open square of the Dabiri So is called Filin Ngoloni. The name references loss and the stick used to beat a particular drum when someone is lost in the forest or when highly honored people in the village die. Placed within the Dabiri So, the Filin Ngoloni may suggest that because it is easy to lose people, one must be vigilant about protecting one’s social relationships.

The artist used diamond-shaped lines called Nkerekan or “cricket’s neck” to create the Cheli Djou pattern. The diamond shape visually imitates the form of the cricket’s neck. Its significance lies with the appearance of crickets at the end of the rainy season – the sound of many crickets is a good omen and suggests abundant crops.

The string of squares encasing simple crosses is called the Fali Fereke and references a thick cord used to inhibit a donkey’s wandering. It suggests that upon having children, a woman’s actions should be restricted. Prior to childbearing, but after marriage, a woman is free to pursue her own interests – even lovers.

A heavy rectangle crossed with equally heavy bars is the Ntabani design. Named after a tree that produces a stimulating fruit, this design is never seen, but is concealed under the overlapping skirt.

To see other bokolanfini in the Johnson Museum’s collection search for object numbers 87.012.002, 87.012.003, 87.012.004, and 87.012.005 in the keyword search box.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.