Although the borders which define the country of Mali are relatively new, the cultures that make up Malian society are very ancient, and Mali has its own singular cosmology which gives an explanation of the universe and everything in it. In this cosmology, at the beginning of existence, a celestial bird brought the seeds of every food plant necessary for humans to farm and live on the earth. And along with these seeds, and of equal importance, the celestial bird brought the seeds of the first cotton.
Several varieties of cotton plant are indigenous to West Africa, and the organic cotton available in Mali is exceptionally soft and tactile, as well as being environmentally sustainable as it is grown without pesticides, and is harvested and cleaned by hand. It even comes in several different colours, but these are now very hard to obtain.
Malian cotton was historically one of the mainstays of the country's wealth, both for Malians and later for the French colonial rulers of the country, and it is still very important. Spinning and weaving the cotton were, and still are, seasonal occupations; done in between the planting and harvesting of the cotton itself and of food crops. Mali remains a heavily agricultural country with the majority of its population dependent on farming for their livelihoods, and the year revolves around the agricultural seasons.
Mali does not have the infrastructure to mechanically spin or weave industrial amounts of cotton, so more than 90% of Mali's cotton crop are exported for transformation into yarn and cloth. This effectively means that there is little value added to Mali's cotton crop, as both the potential employment and the control and value of the end product benefit other countries. Compounding the problem, this raw cotton often returns to Mali in the form of cheap used cloth and clothing, further devaluing the local market for hand-produced traditional cloth.
The small amount of the cotton crop that remains must be transformed by hand into cloth. Spinning cotton by hand so that the thread is fine and even is an exceptional skill – traditionally a woman's occupation, and one that is now very rare due to the ever-increasing availability of cheap imported cloth. The best spinners are now very elderly women, and their skills are not being passed on to a new generation.
Good weavers are also increasingly difficult to find. Traditionally Malian cotton is woven by men on a narrow-strip horizontal loom, and the strips are then sewn together to produce a width of cloth. A lot of the woven cotton fabric produced in Mali now has only a handspun weft (horizontal thread) – the warp (vertical thread) is commonly of machine-spun imported cotton. This produces a considerably cheaper fabric, but it is not of high quality. My textiles only use handwoven cotton in which both warp and weft are handspun. Amounts of fabric are woven to order for my pieces, and then cut so that there is no wastage.
Supporting the growers, spinners and weavers of this beautiful indigenous material is important, and many products in the Aboubakar Fofana range are made entirely out of organic Malian cotton, spun and woven by hand using traditional methods. I hope that my efforts to promote Malian cotton through my work will eventually allow me to realise the dream of training a new generation of spinners and weavers, and keeping this important tradition alive.