Bògòlanfini, the Mythos behind Mudcloth

Photograph of strips of mud dyed cloth drying in the sun, that will become bògòlanfini (mudcloth or bogolan)
Image: Magali An Berthon, Tissus & Artisans du Monde

“Bogolan cloth is literally made of the earth, forests, rivers and sun of Mali.

— Kandiora Coulibaly, Groupe Bogolan Kasobane

And it was through the harnessing of natural materials the iron-rich mud of river-beds, the extracts of leaves, bark, and roots, and the energy of the intense West African sunlight that the Bambara weaver‘s off-white cotton bands, finimigu, were not only imbued with color, but also with protective and curative powers.

White cotton strip cloth partially dyed with vegetal extracts in the making of traditional West African mudcloth, Bògòlanfini.
Image: Adriaan Louw / The Ndomo Project

So potent was this cloth dyed in a lengthy, labor-intensive, spiritual communion with the earth  that it alone had the power, the mystical resilience and strength, to hold the amulets of the healer and the hunter.

Bògòlanfini and the Donsow

That the protective power of bògòlanfini was traditionally channeled and, by some mythological accounts, originally created by hunters and healers known collectively as donsow, is befitting, given their unique stature in Mandé society and their extraordinary ventures; ever confronting and conciliating the dangerous animal, plant, and spirit world of the bush.

These bands of cotton sewn together, dyed and cut into traditional garb, donsofani, create a kind of continuous, identifying, personal canvas; one that has the strength to underpin even the most potent display of talisman, from the divinatory, benedictive, protective cowrie to the fereké, nyama-controlling amulet that literally means ‘hitched on’.*

Earth-toned and musky, this cloth dissimulates the sight and scent of the donso as he moves through the occult, ominous, and inhospitable world of the bush, becoming more and more overlaid with horns and claws, strips of rawhide and skin-covered amulets (sebenw) with each encounter. The bogolan canvas may all but disappear behind the ever more obtuse, complex and over-grown iconography of the master donso**, as if conceptually mirroring the bush itself.

“As [the amulets] expand, they gradually obliterate one’s sense of the cloth underneath. They grow oblique and murky … ultimately approaching a Mandé concept called dibi … at one level likened to darkness and the night. The bush is a place of dibi, and the world of sorcery is submerged in it.

― Patrick McNaughton

Yet mudcloth retains its jayan the clarity, light and precision that is universal to traditional Mandé aesthetics when enveloping and protecting the mogo gwansang, or common man.

Bògòlanfini and the Mogo Gwansang

The mudcloth of ordinary people, so recognizable by its distinctively rich, earthy, rustic color palette, is often hand-painted with abstract, culturally-meaningful patterns. Visually clear and precise as Mandé jayan would have it, the symbols nevertheless encode more esoteric medicinal, historical and even moral wisdom.

Wrapped in virtual earth, forest, river, and sunlight, the young girl is protected in her transition to womanhood; the common man, from the potent and often unwieldy spiritual force that animates all things, nyama.

Groupe Bogolan Kasobane: "Nyama". Fine Art Bògòlanfini (bogolan or mudcloth): Earthy tones, a mythological snake/bird figure symbolizing the connections between all things.
Nyama, A visualization of the energy that animates all living things, connecting human beings with every aspect of the world around them.” ― Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, Mali, West Africa, 1989.

Sources and Further Reading

Books and Articles:

  • Rovine, V. (2008). Bogolan: Shaping Culture Through Cloth. Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press.
  • McNaughton, P. R. (1982). The Shirts that Mandé Hunters Wear. African Arts, 25(3), 54-58+91. Retrieved June 22, 2018 from JSTOR.
  • Ferrarini, L. (March 2019). The Shirts of the Donso Hunters: Materiality and Power between Concealment and Visual Display. African Studies Review, Volume 62, Issue 1 March 2019 , pp. 76-98. Retrieved March 21, 2019 from Cambridge.org. ** [A recent look at the power of hunters through the aesthetics of concealment and understatement, rather than excessive visual display, in the context of contemporary Burkina Faso.]


  • Bogolan Collection. Retrieved June 22, 2018 from Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
  • Ferrarini, L. (2012, June 10). What a Donzo Wears.*  Retrieved June 22, 2018 from Lorenzo Ferrarini
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