arts and crafts from west africa: fabric painting

Fabric painter Yopé Sanogo painting a cloth. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Monongo (Boundiali region, Ivory Coast), 1978

Fabric painter Tinnimpiénan Tuo with a shirt that he painted himself. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Sirasso (Boundiali region, Ivory Coast), 1976

The Senufo still partly use conventional garments that stand out due to their unique production style. In everyday life, women and girls wear hip scarves, and if they are mothers a second cloth will be used as a baby carrier to tie the child to their back. These hip cloths are made in the same way as the men’s shirts or suits, and children’s shirts. They are made of coarse, hand-spun and handwoven cotton fabric, with narrow, ribbon-like, 9–15 cm wide cotton strips sewn together to the required width. Garments for everyday use are natural-white or have woven stripes in natural indigo-blue. Often the natural colour is replaced by indanthrene dye and the handspun yarn by cheap imported machine yarn. The hand-painted cloths and garmets stand out from these as very special pieces of clothing.

In traditional fabric painting, called flafani, no ordinary piece of clothing would be painted. This is not about fashion or about it being beautiful. Rather, the painted patterns, indeed the whole cloth as such, has a magical meaning. The flafani cloth does not want to please or stand out. It wants to protect, heal and help. If a person has a problem (illness, infertility, failure to succeed in the hunt or any other private, family or professional difficulties), they visit the fortune teller, the “doctor for body and soul”, who, once they have consulted the oracle, prescribes the appropriate medicine. This prescription can be in the form of bronze amulets, bangles, finger rings or figures of various shapes, but also as a painted garment. The oracle determines the time and duration, and sometimes even specifies the type of work for which the painted garment must be worn. Painting is not the job of a professional artist, but is carried out by individual, gifted members of the tribe. When a person (man or woman) is known for this work in the village, she gets the raw cloth from the person who is seeking help and paints it according to her own fantasy and imagination. This painted pattern still does not give the cloth its special power. The painted cloth or shirt becomes “powerful” and receives its healing or protective effect only through a corresponding sacrifice, in front of the altar of the fortuneteller.

The Dyeing and Painting Technique
The colour is obtained from a decoction of leaves and branches. Initially the colour is a brownish-yellow. By rubbing the fabrics, which are painted with this yellow base colour, with iron-containing river mud, the colour changes. After drying and washing the fabric out (without soap) in the river, it changes the colour to anything from dark brown to rich black. The treatment with river mud happens after the relevant pattern (geometric patterns or in some cases patterns with figures) has been applied to the fabric. The traditional method is when the pattern does not overlap the edge of the sewn together, 9–15 cm wide strips; modern patterns which are developed for tourism, on the other hand, occupy larger areas and generously go over the “borderline” of the respective seams. Blunt wooden or iron knives are used as drawing implements to draw the thin lines on the fabric, then broad wooden spatulas are used, for example to cover the seams, as well as chewed wooden paintbrushes to stain larger areas. Then small, round pieces of wood are used to knock the paint firmly into the fabric. Other implements used are small wooden stamps, with a cross, dot or circle pattern. When making hunter or farmer shirts, the paint is either sprayed or hit onto the fabric using grass brushes or kitchen brooms, sometimes using large leaf veins. The fabric is either spread over a board and nailed down or simply pulled over a calabash skin (hollowed out pumpkin) for working on. Additionally there are cloths that are coloured in red-black. Cloths of this type are initially completely dyed with a rust-red colour (made from a beef decoction), and then once dry are painted using ferrous, liquid river mud. After the mud pattern has dried, it can either be rubbed off or washed off under running water. The applied mud pattern now appears black due to the resulting effect of the iron from the river mud.

Karl-Heinz Krieg, 1980
From: Kunst und Kunsthandwerk aus Westafrika, with the foreword by Dr. Klaus Volprecht, Leverkusen 1980.
Translation: Mary Miller