Mineral mud-dye is known as bogolanfini in Mali, and is a very ancient dyeing method which encompasses a lot of Mali's traditional symbolism. The process itself is relatively simple; cloth is soaked in a mordanting solution made from boiling the tannin-rich leaves of local plants. Once the cloth has dried, it is painted with mud containing iron sulphate. The iron in the mud binds to the tannin in the mordant, staining the cloth black, dark brown, or grey, depending on the source of the mud and the skill of the dyer.
In the past, there were strict rules about who could practice the craft of dyeing with mud. In Malian society, the blacksmith was held in great respect and even fear. Without the blacksmith's mastery of fire, there could be no weapons for war and no tools for agriculture. The blacksmith smelted the iron for his tools and weapons from the iron-rich ore taken from Mali's soils. And it was the blacksmith's wife who was traditionally responsible both for the making of pottery- because of her access to fire and clay, and for the dyeing of mud-cloth, because of her proximity to iron-rich mud. Additionally, she would have been an older woman with a long experience of life; in agricultural Malian society, young people would have been tending the crops or animals and it was only older people who were exempt from going daily to the fields.
Bogolanfini was not traditionally a decorative art, although the cloth produced was beautiful. Malian belief is that if an object fulfils its role of being useful, then it is also beautiful, and bogolanfini is beautiful because it fulfilled its role of symbolism perfectly. The signs and symbols used in bogolan cloth were a form of codified communication understood by everyone who had passed the age of initiation. The symbols might tell the observer that the wearer had recently suffered a bereavement, or that a woman had given birth to her second child. Mud-dyed cloth was also worn by hunters and warriors , with the symbols on the cloth being protective. The cloth itself was imbued with great power because of the symbols painted on it.
Many of these symbols still remain in modern mud-dyed textiles, but the understanding of what those symbols mean has all but disappeared. Bogolanfini is now often made cheaply and quickly by using the mud-dye in a stencil process, or by overpainting with bleach which removes the colour to produce a reverse-resist effect, but which is damaging both for the environment and for the cloth itself. These cheapened versions of bogolanfini are readily available in markets and are often made for tourists.
All natural dyes fascinate me, but I came to mud-dyeing because it was both a dyeing practice of the part of Africa where I was born, and a deep expression of West African spiritual symbolism. Although many facets of Malian traditional culture have been lost or are receding, Malians are heirs to this spirituality. I don't use the traditional symbols, they are not my right to use and they are no longer understood. Their power still remains but it cannot be interpreted. My background is in calligraphy and graphic expression, and mud-dyeing gives me a medium which is rooted in Malian spirituality, and in which I can be at once a calligrapher, a painter, and a dyer.