For most of its recent history the country of Mali has been a landlocked backwater, distinguished by the prominence of its medieval Islamic scholarship and the strength of its traditions. Bamana (Bambara) women offer a visual testimony to this country. They paint black mud around small geometric motifs to create mesmerizing black and white cloths. Why do these cloths embody a mystery and what is their message about visual display and women?

Bamana women create the designs that animate their mud cloths by painting the dark areas that surround cream-colored motifs using a viscous, fermented mud dye that contains a variety of ingredients. Carefully chosen leaves, water in which millet has been washed, and even water left over from washing meat can be added to the mixture. Each dyer has her own recipe and “secrets” that she adds to her dye. Before being painted, every white homespun cloth is dipped in a bath created from one of several leaves. This preliminary process turns the dried cloth a vivid yellow-green. Dyers say that it is the combination of leaf dye and fermented mud that causes a successful cloth to retain its deep black color and make possible sharp contrasts of black and white.

Women’s cloth wrappers are said to be the apogee of the dyer’s art, but men who hunt also commission trousers and over-shirts in certain key patterns from well-known artists. In the past, the preliminary leaf bath in which the white cotton was dipped was different, depending on whether the garment was to be worn by a woman or man. No man would have tolerated a dyer who used a woman’s leaf dye for his trousers any more than the dyer herself would have used a man’s leaf dye on a woman’s skirt. Both technique and patterns were gender specific since every dye bath transmitted a medicinal force to the cloth soaked in it. This regimen has long since vanished, though fragments of this system still subsist. Women have tended to adopt patterns that were once restricted to men, and ecological damage has made it necessary to use whatever suitable leaves one can find.

Each white homespun wrapper is first dipped in a preliminary dye bath that turns it a brilliant yellow-green. It is then painted with mud at least twice, sometimes three times, before the yellow-green areas are finally bleached to a cream-color. Today commercial bleaches give cloths a startling whiteness, but in the past homemade bleach left them a tan color. Before World War II almost every woman in an extended family knew how to paint mud cloth, although it could take a lifetime to develop the fine manual control necessary to draw each motif exactly. Bamana women wore no other textile: indigo was suspect as indicating membership in the Maraka ethnic group of traders, and Bamana farming families were too poor to buy imported, commercial cloth.

To make the precisely drawn motifs Bamana women used two tools. The first was a short bamboo palette knife used to fill in designs once they had been marked out. The artist also employed this tool to make the larger black lines that carved each cloth into five areas or panels. A waistband, a border above the feet, and two side panels framed the large central rectangle filled with the pattern that gave a cloth its name. Once the cloth had been divided into its five sections, the artist began to draw the motifs that would fill each area. To achieve precision, each woman used a short iron tool with a triangular tip. The artist pressed the edge of the triangular blade into the cloth in order to achieve motifs with precise, clear borders. Expert artists working on an upturned gourd were able to inscribe elaborate motifs without smudging their lines or dripping dots of mud where they would spoil the design. Each motif had its own name and each combination of motifs into a pattern was also named. Take, for instance, the motif called a “Dove’s foot.” Some women say simply that the motif “looks like” the pattern of a dove’s foot in the sand. Yet, with time one comes to understand that for the Bamana, the fact that male and female doves form indissoluble couples transforms this motif into an emblem of marital fidelity. In a culture where marriages are still arranged by elderly men who often place young women in difficult if not impossible situations, fidelity is a prized achievement. So, in painting the “dove’s foot” the artist is writing a eulogy to faithfulness in the face of difficulties experienced together and over time.

In addition to the shapes of familiar motifs, slight differences in the tan color of the “white” designs broadcast messages as to how close a stranger should come to the wearer of the cloth. A man arriving at a compound to find two young women wearing wrappers painted with straight horizontal lines would immediately know that they were recovering from excision, the rite of passage into adulthood, marriage and childbearing. Not only do the white towels on their heads locate them in a sacred space of transition, but the dark reddish coloring and the horizontal lines of their cloths proclaim that they have been involved with blood. Thus, these young women should not be touched, even in greeting, by a man. Indeed a cautious man would keep well away from the girls, afraid lest the hidden objects concealed in his gown be contaminated by the power of their blood.

In the past none of this was ever put into words; textiles and gestures were a sophisticated language that allowed men and women to come together and stay apart without contaminating each other’s sources of power. Thus, mud-dyed cloths were always dyed in a bath that included an additional ingredient which turned them “red” when they were to be worn in a ritual situation involving blood or death, while the dye baths for patterns and motifs that enhanced life were left without key additives so that these designs could be fully bleached when the cloth was finished. “White” and “red” cloths, the secular and the sacred, alternated with each other throughout life, and before Islam was taken to heart in the 1950s and again throughout the 80s and 90s every woman was buried wrapped in the red cloth of motherhood, its belt tied in the rear. Even today, when young women do not wish to be separated from daily life and want only a tiny amount of the red dye added to their excision cloths, mud cloths are still either “white” or “red,” secular or sacred.

“Red” cloth did not just indicate that a woman was off-limits sexually and located in a sacred space; it was also used to indicate the same extra-ordinary state for men. In the past some Bamana men spent large portions of their lives in a celibate, semi-sacrosanct state, for shorter and longer periods of celibacy were usually the pre-requisite for the acquisition of ritual knowledge. In the past, a visitor to a compound would immediately note which men were dressed in ragged, barely noticeable yellow/green garments as they walked out to their fields to farm. Another man might arrive from the bush, the body of a small antelope tied to his back. His darker tan shirt imprinted with the patterns of acacia branches dipped in mud testified to his identity as a hunter and therefore someone who could divine the future.

A man who wore a rust-colored shirt signaled his high level of expertise. Despite its apparent simplicity, no ritual specialist would give such a shirt to a woman for dyeing because he would not trust a woman to remain sexually abstinent for the duration of the dye process. In addition, an expert sculptor or hunter would wish to soak his shirt in private “medicines” (leaf dyes) unobserved. It was these dye baths that would make a shirt invulnerable to poisons and bullets. Such a man might be the head of his local men’s secret association or Komo society, and be skilled in both poisons and cures. Such men, at the apex of ritual power, lived surrounded by an invisible frame of space to be crossed at one’s peril. When this ritual expert returned home and hung up his shirt his wife would make a careful circle around the garment, lest accidental contact with it render her sterile. For, after solitary rituals designed to make the shirt impregnable to bullets and wild animals, the cloth almost quivers with unseen life.

Male ritual experts rarely mention this system of silent signals, and elderly women observe an unbreakable public silence about “men’s business.” Women are silent for good reason for they often fear the implicit violence of the men’s secret associations. Here we find the reason behind the ambiguity and the sophistication of Bamana cloth. For safety’s sake the ‘meaning’ of a cloth varies with context, and only the women, the makers and users of the cloth can say what a particular cloth signifies. Understanding this dynamic and its ambiguous messages means understanding how Bamana women are always camouflaging themselves. It is not just that the brown and cream colors of mud cloth patterns echo the mesmeric light and dark of the bush. This camouflage is visual and easy to understand, but in the Bamana world a woman’s opinions, her philosophy of life, her wishes and her hopes are best hidden in a profound silence or expressed in the painting of a mud cloth.

On a superficial level, Bamana women seem endlessly talkative, but their knowledge of traditional medicine, of human nature, and of how to negotiate life is deeply hidden beneath this chattering noise. Although sorcery is forbidden, it is always wise to have a recipe or two lurking in the silence of one’s mind for husbands are fickle and easily seduced. Bamana men are correct when they remark that women are much more hidden and more difficult of access than men. One often hears a cultural trope, the tale of a man who has lived for thirty or forty years with a wife who has always appeared to like him and hang on his every word. Then, without warning, he awakens to find her vanished along with his favorite child and slowly, piece by piece, her longstanding hatred of him and her marriage emerges. Whether true or not, this fable contains a truth that is self-evident to the Bamana: that women are able to deceive and hide with far more skill than men.

The Bamana believe that the alliance between women is unbreakable. Older women constantly monitor younger women. A young woman who talks all the time is perceived as having some underlying unhappiness that she is afraid to express. As a result she chatters. However the chatterer is perceived as endangering her family, since she may reveal something important to other families or to an outsider. Family honor demands that “secrets” — histories of slavery, of internecine quarrels between brothers, of infractions of secret association rules — be kept within the confines of the extended family. A woman who talks unwisely is a “woman of no account” and she will be shunned by other women in the village. Near the Niger river towards the border with Burkina Faso the women’s association of a village will take a chatterer to a nearby river and wash her with certain plants in order to stop her tongue. If this does not work, the association will ostracize the woman, a dangerous situation, for the ostracism communicates an implicit death sentence. If a woman’s chattering brings the affair to this point, the male elders in her own or her husband’s family will intervene, asking a respected female elder to present an amend to the women’s association and reinstate the chatterer in their ranks. Yet, the woman will always bear the taint of having talked too much. Women do not forgive their own.

Thus, what is missing in a woman’s conversation finds its home in the complex patterns of mud cloth. If the living are silent about crucial issues, then cloth carries the burden of the unspoken, the silent. Women encode meta-messages into the patterns they paint. It is these messages that are hidden from view, concealed in the careful drawing of motif after motif. How long does it take to grasp that the term for a small circle, den so, is also a medical term for the uterus? Perhaps, if you are a favorite of your grandmother, no time at all, but otherwise perhaps forty or fifty years. This knowledge is not organized; it is many lifetimes of passion and pain condensed into a code. The code can speak, although it lies awaiting its interpreters in silence. Women learn this code slowly, and some, like men, never learn it. It can stay mute or it can speak.

It takes mental and physical skill to make mud cloth’s complex designs in a world of few resources. Information is written on mud cloths, but reading these textiles with their oblique signs is a surreptitious skill. In the Bamana world, information — if it is worth having— appears and disappears in strange ways, and this remains true of mud cloth and its interpretation. Messages are coded into these textiles but they are hidden. Gaining access to the metaphors and images that haunt these textiles is not easy. Bamana women, the underdogs in the perpetual struggle as to who owns a woman’s labor, her husband’s family or her own relatives, keep their secrets well. Unlike men, they gain nothing in making their views known to the world; their’s is the space of secrecy and self-containment.

Text by Sarah C. Brett-Smith