Researched by Hillary Kummer, Tana Redman, Lauren Fitzpatrick, and Rachel Johnson
Dogon men wear traditional cotton shirts in everyday life, but they are much less intricate, often just left a natural off-white or dyed a simple shade of brown. The elaborate designs on this garment imply influence from other cultures such as Islamic Africans, who often create elaborate, curvilinear geometric and organic motifs; the designs also may have been created in response to the tourist trade, as tourists will often pay more for garments with more detail. The size and the addition of color also differentiate this garment from boys’ shirts, which are plain in color but might sport decorative tassels. Researched by Rachel Johnson
Bogolanfini cloth panels are presented to girls in the Bamana culture when they have reached puberty and have undergone excision surgery (a.k.a. “female circumcision”), which is traditionally seen as a required transition into adulthood. After an adolescent girl receives her Bogolanfini, she wears this elaborately designed cloth at other transitional moments in her life, such as for her wedding, after bearing a child, and as a burial shroud. Wearing the Bogolanfini cloth indicates that a young woman has come of age and that she is now at an important stage in her adult life. Researched by Rachel Johnson
Although this female figure was likely produced as a doll for the tourist trade, the cloth garments that she wears are traditional in production, design, and style. Adrinka cloth garments such as these were originally made with darker and duller colors and worn mainly for funeral ceremonies; however, the cloth eventually became a base material for regalia worn on festive occasions, and different motifs developed with specific meanings. The bright colors of red and blue in this figure’s clothing indicate the celebratory nature of the garments, as do their elaborate designs. Two specific motifs shown in these garments are kete pa, which indicates good marriage, and mframadan, which indicates fortitude. Researched by Rachel Johnson
Kasai velvets, also known as Shoowa velvets or simply as Kuba cloths, are textiles that traditionally act as regalia of prestige and display tapestries for Kuba royalty. The cloth is made of raffia, a fiber derived from the leaf stalks of the raffia palm tree, which is gathered by boys and then processed by women. Men weave the softened fibers into tight cloth squares, which are limited in size because of the length of the leaves. Next, female artisans process and dye fine raffia for the embroidery, and they design elaborate, mathematically based, changing patterns into the cloth as they stitch in the embroidered outlines; then they add stiff, thick pile to the open areas between the embroidered lines, and they expertly trim the pile to create a sculpted velvet surface.
Kasai velvet is worn as component panels within the regalia of the royalty, as well as by high-status individuals who attend royal ceremonies, and even by masqueraders who perform ritual plays. As Kasai velvet is so labor-intensive, it is highly valuable and can be used like currency; subjects who owe tribute to the king often send Kasai velvet as payment. The cloth is used for numerous purposes, including as tapestries for the palace, as carpets for the palace, and even as a lining for royal tombs. If a king is artistically inclined, he may design his own personal Kasai velvet motifs for the embroiderers to recreate in the cloth. While traditionally produced Kasai velvet is made for sale in the tourist trade today, fine cloths continue to serve as symbols of royalty and of high status and honor in Kuba society. Researched by Hillary Kummer and Rachel Johnson
Fila cloth, also known as Korhogo cloth, is traditionally commissioned by female members of Senufo society who are known as diviners – those who are in contact with the spirit world and who can divine the future. These diviners, known as the Sandobele, commission male artisans to make specifically designed Fila cloths to act as protective charms that appease malevolent spirits of the wilderness known as “bush spirits.” The cloths are frequently made into hunting shirts for men because hunters venture into the dangerous wilderness and require protection. In addition, Fila cloth may be worn in masquerades as part of costumes, and it is used as ritual garments for boys during their ceremonies for initiation into adulthood, which frequently take place in the wilderness and represent a dangerous time of transition. Likewise, the cloths serve as as indications of adulthood, as a symbol of status in society and of success as a hunter, and as a symbol of wealth and prestige.
Fila cloth consists of finely woven cotton cloth that is painted with iron-rich mud to create abstracted figural designs. The images on the cloth illustrate characters with specific meanings. The humanoid figure on the left side of this cloth may represent a ritual dancer or, because of its fin-like feet, a water-dwelling bush spirit. The humanoid figure on the right likely represents a fierce hunter who explores the mysteries of the forest, although the headdress it wears is also very similar to that of a Senufo masked dancer. The animals, meanwhile, hold more symbolic significance: The goat represents male prowess, while the fish symbolizes life and water–which also may be symbolized by the horn that pours out a liquid. The birds may be chickens, which represent maternity, or they may be guinea fowl, which represent feminine beauty. The star, finally, indicates one of the first elements placed in the sky by the Senufo creator deity.
Fila cloth is still produced and used traditionally in Senufo society, but it has also become a popular tourist item and an important source of income for Senufo artisans. While traditional cloths are off-white, natural cotton with brownish-black, linear motifs, tourist-trade cloth uses mud pigments of different tones and different colors of commercial dyes and pigments to produce more elaborate designs that appeal to buyers. Researched by Tana Redman, Lauren Fitzpatrick, and Rachel Johnson