Senufo Fila Cloth
Researched and Conserved by Courtney Sturguess
All traditional Senufo fila cloth has three things in common: the mud-dying technique, the style of horizontal and vertical painted lines and signs, and connections with a diviner. Also known as Korhogo cloth (named for the village in which it is made), fila is used to show status, for good luck, and as a means of communication with the supernatural world following divination. These textiles are often recommended by Sando diviners (members of the Sandogo, the women’s divination society) as protective charms and as devices to appease or neutralize potentially malevolent bush spirits.
The three fila panels in this collection are very similar in their imagery. Fila Cloth Panel #1 includes the figure of a goat in the center flanked by a fish on each side, with a row of three birds below. In Fila Cloth Panel #2, the goat image is replaced with an androgynous human figure that likely represents a hunter; as in Panel #1, the figure is flanked by fish and has a row of birds below. In Fila Cloth Panel #3, a male human figure is surrounded by five birds; however, the two birds flanking the human figure are different from the row of birds below, their wings and tails instead resembling those of the fish in the previous panels.
All of these animals are highly symbolic in Senufo imagery. The goat seen in Panel #1 is a strong symbol of male prowess, and it is therefore in parallel with the image of the hunter in the other two panels. The bird is one of the main characters in the Senufo creation story and is symbolic of freedom; the birds in these panels likely represent swallows and possibly chickens, which additionally symbolize grace, fertility, and interdependence. The fish, when depicted with the bones exposed, can indicate bareness; however, when the fish is depicted whole, as it is in Panels #1 and #2, it is a symbol for vitality and abundance.
While these three panels are good representations of traditional fila cloth, they were likely made for the tourist trade because they take the form of stretched panels for display–when fila is traditionally used for clothing. Fila is typically worn by hunters as protection from harm; not only are the symbols on fila spiritually significant, but the designs allow them to blend into their surroundings, serving as camouflage. Fila is also commonly used in rites of passage; it is made into graduation robes for men coming of age in the Poro (the men’s secret society), and it is made into skirts for young girls preparing for marriage. Children also wear fila cloth masks for funeral ceremonies, and the cloth is used to cover the bodies of male and female elders at their funerals.