The Silence of the Women: Bamana Mud Cloths.
By Sarah C. Brett-Smith
5 Continents Editions, 2014
Mud cloth, or bogolanfini, is a type of dyed cotton textile with distinctive linear and geometric patterns contrasting deep brown with either white or ochre tones. It was originally made by women, and some men, among the Bamana people of Mali, West Africa. In the form of adapted, modernized, and often mass-produced versions that have become popular as markers of Malian and pan-African identity since the 1970s, mud cloth is now just as likely to be seen in Paris and New York as it is in a rural Malian village. In The Silence of the Women, Sarah Brett-Smith provides an in-depth examination of Bamana mud cloth as it was made and used before these changes in production took place. Fortunately, other authors have documented the recent renaissance in mud cloth, showing it to be a vibrant, dynamic art form that is able to respond to contemporary conditions and absorb new meanings. (1) Since the earlier mud cloths, for example Figure 1 (before 1964), were made primarily by women to use as wrapped garments for everyday and ritual use, this book contributes to our knowledge of African women's artistry and how their art reflects women's concerns and experiences.
The book's title, The Silence of the Women, encapsulates both Brett-Smith's thesis and the challenges she experienced in her field research, which began in 1976 and continued, off and on, until 1998. She found most Bamana women who made and used the cloths to be reluctant to speak to her about them, disavowing all but the most superficial knowledge of their designs and meaning. According to Brett-Smith, the patriarchal nature of Bamana society forces women to be silent and to hide behind a facade of ignorance, since overtly expressing their ideas would incite the jealousy, resentment, and ill will of others, both male and female, and make them potential targets of poisoning and other occult practices. The designs on mud cloth are similarly "mute"--ambiguous and cryptic--meant to camouflage the ideas they encode. In Brett-Smith's decoding, these patterns relate primarily to marriage and childbearing, and reveal a woman's vulnerability in the Bamana marriage system, in which a wife lives far from her own family and surrounded by in-laws, co-wives, and co-wives' children, all of whom may want to do her harm. Although some of the patterns, such as "Guanjo's Time" (154), suggest positive ways that women achieve success and well-being in marriage, Brett-Smith is especially interested in those such as "Lizard's Head" (170-76), that allude to the invisible forces women muster to protect themselves from harm or to hurt those who threaten them.
Sorcery, occult knowledge, and the power to manipulate supernatural forces are deeply engrained in Bamana society, but so are values such as respect, cooperation, mutual support, and obligations to family and society. The Bamana have terms for these opposing tendencies, fadenya or "father-childness" for the forces that compel individuals to act for their own power and benefit, and badenya or "mother-childness" for the forces that promote harmony and unity. (2) Ideally the two tendencies are balanced, but in The Silence of the Women Bamana life is dominated by poison, murder, infanticide, and constant fear. An ominous, paranoid tone pervades Brett-Smith's writing, seen in phrases like "the greatest obscurity is that which walks abroad in the sun at high noon and ... the most innocuous-looking, elderly woman in the Kolokani market may be the most vengeful sorcerer" (95). Countless such dark pronouncements create a bleak and distorted portrayal of Bamana people and culture.
The Silence of the Women is divided into three parts. The first three chapters address the materials, techniques, aesthetics, and conventions of mud cloth. It is made by first immersing the cloth in an herbal dye made from specific types of leaves. This solution acts as a mordant or chemical fixative when the cloth is then painted with fermented mud. Bamana women categorize the cloths as either "white" (kanjida) or "red" (basi or bileman). Those used for everyday wear are called "white" because the areas not painted with mud have been bleached to remove the colored stain of the initial leaf dye. For spiritually charged "red" mud cloths, the ochre tones of the leaf dye are intentionally retained after the mud designs have been painted on.
In chapters four through six, Brett-Smith explores several constellations of motifs found on the "white" mud cloths, related to women's experience in marriage. She carefully parses the name, cultural references, and sometimes the form of each motif; students of textiles, women's studies, and Bamana culture will find much of interest here.
The final chapters examine "red" mud cloths, which signal that the wearer should abstain from sex, whether for ritual purposes or for occasions when blood is shed, thus releasing a potent spiritual force (nyama). The author discusses patterns and colors on "red" mud cloths worn by Bamana hunters which proclaim the men's ability to confront the nyama of animals and the bush. Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, a woman wore the "red" cloths on the occasions of first menstruation, excision, loss of virginity in marriage, and childbirth. These cloths become filled with nyama by absorbing her blood and sweat and by contact with her genitals, thus becoming powerful ritual objects that can be used in occult practices. The two patterns found on women's "red" mud cloth, N'Gale and Basiae, are shown to incorporate references to moral behavior, fertility, marriage, childbirth, and supernatural protection.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Brett-Smith's analysis of mud cloth is rooted in her deep and far-ranging understanding of Bamana language and culture, gained through her countless interviews with both women and men. She makes clear that the interpretations she presents are her own syntheses and hypotheses (128-30). Nevertheless, it is troubling to read, over and over, that the women who made and wore the cloths may not have been aware of the meanings Brett-Smith attributes to them. Although her goal is to compensate for their silence, many of the interpretations she proposes go beyond the evidence she provides. In one example, she interprets the horizontal stripes that characterize the N'Gale pattern as abstract representations of female genitals, based upon the information provided by a single informant, a woman from the Mianka ethnic group, not the Bamana (230-32). In another example, Brett-Smith describes the practice, used in the early twentieth century, of leaving a slight space between each stroke of dark mud, calling it a "shadow." She then explores the many meanings associated with the Bamana word for shadow (ja), including one aspect of a person's spiritual essence, and connects this practice with the occult (91-95). Since the word "shadow" was not suggested by her Bamana informants, its use as the basis for further interpretation seems unjustified.
Brett-Smith's underlying goal of reconstructing a "pure" version of mud cloth untainted by modernity is also problematic. Given that major changes were ongoing for more than a century in the way it was made, marketed, and imbued with meaning, one might question whether such an ideal reconstruction is even possible. To do so would require a much more thorough and careful use of historical documents than is presented here. She could have looked more closely at mud cloths in museum collections and made better use of information in the early literature about the Bamana. Her historical reconstructions beg for stronger proof. One of the book's major claims is that the underlying gridlike structure of many mud cloths stems from Islamic sources, but the visual and documentary evidence offered is not convincing (102-12). Elsewhere she states that Basiae designs go back at least to the mid-nineteenth century, but provides no evidence at all (239).
The Silence of the Women contributes to the literature on Bamana art and culture, especially in its examination of the use and meaning of the spiritually charged "red" cloths worn by men and women, and in the connections it draws between mud cloth designs and the experience of Bamana women in marriage. However, because of its often negative views of Bamana culture and many questionably supported interpretations, it should not be the sole source of information on either mud cloth or Bamana women's lives.
Kate Ezra is the author of A Human Ideal in African Art: Bamana Figurative Sculpture (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986) and several articles on Bamana art.
(1.) Tavy D. Aherne, Nakunte Diarra: Bogolanfini Artist of the Beledougou (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Art Museum, 1992); Pauline Duponchel, Textiles Bdgdlan du Mali (Neuchatel: Musee d'Ethnographie, 2004); Pascal James Imperato, African Mud Cloth: The Bogolanfini Art Tradition of Gneli Traore (Tenafly, NJ: The African Art Museum of the S.M.A. Fathers and Manhassat, NY: Kilima House Publishers, 2006); Victoria L. Rovine, Bogolan: Shaping Culture Through Cloth in Contemporary Mali (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 2008).
(2.) Charles S. Bird and Martha B. Kendall, "The Mande Hero--Text and Context," in Explorations in African Systems of Thought, eds. Charles S. Bird and Ivan Karp (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980), 13-26.
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|Publication:||Woman's Art Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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