The Past in the Future

Bogolanfini and the Economics of Cotton in Post-Colonial Mali

Malians have grown cotton for centuries. The oldest textiles preserved in Sub-Saharan West Africa are strip-woven cotton garments, found in Malian burial caves and dated to the twelfth century AD.

 

Today, nearly half of Mali's export revenue comes from the sale of cotton. It is one of the world's most productive cotton-growing countries, yet Malian cotton farmers can barely survive. They are forced to sell their harvests at prices held artificially low by subsidies granted to American farmers and a market depressed by world economic forces. Without their own subsidies or domestic factories capable of producing finished cloth, contemporary Malian farmers are squeezed by globalization.

Today, nearly half of Mali's export revenue comes from the sale of cotton. It is one of the world's most productive cotton-growing countries, yet Malian cotton farmers can barely survive. They are forced to sell their harvests at prices held artificially low by subsidies granted to American farmers and a market depressed by world economic forces. Without their own subsidies or domestic factories capable of producing finished cloth, contemporary Malian farmers are squeezed by globalization.

 

Yet in southern Mali, men continue to weave cotton. Women transform it into clothing for domestic use, as well as into a traditional, spiritually charged, mud-painted textile, bogolanfini, that protects women at birth, in the excision ceremonies that mark their transitions to adult womanhood, at marriage, during entry into the secret societies that, late in life, confer elder status, and in death.

These stunning, spiritually powerful textiles have become potent symbols of contemporary post-colonial Malian national identity. Malian artists and entrepreneurs have adapted traditional production processes to develop new forms known simply as bogolan, marketed as fine art, tourist art, and high fashion. Bogolan expands the potentials of this indigenous medium for self-expression. It affirms national and regional identities, while providing new outlets for Malian cotton in a fast-evolving global economy.