Cultural HeritageBògòlan and indigo: iconic fabrics in West Africa

Bògòlan and indigo: iconic fabrics in West Africa

When it comes to fabrics made by artisans in West Africa, bògòlan and indigo inevitably figure prominently.

In fact, each of these names derives from the method of dyeing used to give an identity to the fabric.

The bògòlan

The word bògòlan comes from the Bambara: BÒGÒ = clay, mud and LAN = with, made of. The traditional bògòlan technique is practiced by several ethnic groups of the Mandingo cultural area: the Dogon, the Senoufo, the Malinké and the Bambara.

The first manufacturing step is to soak the pieces of fabric in a preparation made from leaves and bark. This gives them a first yellow-orange hue and because of its acidity will allow the dye to set better. Once dried, the pieces are ready to receive the mud dye, a mud that becomes black paste after fermentation. Small bamboo sticks, knives, toothbrushes or flat metal spatulas of different widths are used to draw with this paste, freehand, the outline of the decoration. Depending on the complexity of the decor, this meticulous work can take several weeks. The most important decorative pattern is not dyed, but rather left in reserve, when it comes to producing a top quality bògòlan. Then the fabric is left to dry in the sun until the dough cracks. It is then washed, revealing black and yellow-orange tones. The final step is to apply a soda or bleach-based liquid to the yellow-orange surfaces to whiten them. The patterns obtained through the application of this dyeing technique rival in sumptuousness, whatever they appear.

Bògòlan fabric

Beyond the manufacturing technique, it is above all the patterns that decorate this textile that make its value, even if many people who wear bògòlan boubous ignore the meanings of the signs they wear. The information gathered and the bibliographical sources allow us to say that these patterns evoke important historical events, magnify human qualities, provide advice to society, etc. “One of the constants of the art of bògòlan is precisely the representation of imprints, for the most part stylizations of those of man or animal”, affirms Pauline Duponchel. As one can see by examining this textile closely, the signs, true ideograms, are diverse. Here is an example:

• Sungurun sen kelen (the one-legged girl). This sign denotes the misconduct of a young girl who does not follow the right path, namely the exemplary behavior expected by society. This illustration invites you to avoid marginal conduits.

Sungurun sen kelen pattern

This pattern has a protective virtue, which means that it has a power that draws its strength from the depths of cultural heritage.


The name indigo comes from the Latin indicum which means India. This is a shade of dark blue, an ill-defined color between blue and purple.

Like other continents, Africa has plants that are sources of indigo; the main ones are Indigofera arrecta and Lonchocarpus cyanescens. They are two of the most productive species in the world. Indigofera arrecta comes from arid sub-Saharan regions and Lonchocarpus cyanescens from savannah and forest areas. “The great traditions are all part of the continent’s complex and turbulent history. From distant India, via Egypt, Nubia and Abyssinia, the great ancient trade routes brought their batches of techniques and indigo plants to Africa, ”says Christine Bouilloc.

Several techniques are used to achieve the indigo dye:

-ikat: ikat means “link” and comes from the Malay verb “mengika”, meaning to tie, to bind, to surround. The resist results in a binding of the threads which are dyed to the resist before being woven. During weaving, the weaver introduces patterns by separating the warp threads by small rods.

-plangi: this term comes from Malay and means “colored” or “ligature” in Indonesian. The process involves taking part of the fabric, stretching it between the thumb and forefinger to obtain a larger or smaller cone; then, it must be tied at its base with a cotton thread or a strand of raffia. You can introduce shells, pebbles, cotton seeds or millet. This makes it possible to obtain, after dyeing and removing the ligature, figures in the form of discs, rings or diamonds (Clermont-Ferrand Carpet and Textile Arts Museum – Site Bargoin, 2006).

Detail of a fabric dyed with the plangi technique

-tritik: it consists of using stitches (overlock, zigzag, front stitch) in order to prevent the color from entering. This technique comes in an infinite number of variations. These seams are done by hand or by machine and their traces remain easily identifiable once the fabrics are dyed. The Yoruba of Nigeria practice it in a remarkable way.

-embroidered reserves: they are obtained by embroidery stitches; it is about pinching and covering the fabric with a very tight rolled stitch so as to give a very marked relief to the fabric. This stitch is however used for a limited number of patterns such as stars, crosses, rods. As for the front stitch, it serves as a reserve to make patterns inspired by woven designs.

-batik: this well-known term designates a technique of Javanese origin. The particularity of batik lies in the fact that the reserves are made from rice paste or cassava or, for some time, wax. It is this dough that will “reserve the pattern”. The patterns are produced by printing with stamps or by using paste with feathers or stencils; it is also possible to draw them directly on the fabric. This technique is still widely used in West Africa.

Fabrics dyed with the batik technique

As with the bògòlan, the patterns represented are inspired by the cosmogony of the different West African communities.

Apart from the strong identity and heritage values ​​of these fabrics, their production also underlies socioeconomic issues in several West African countries.

The artisans who make them form a professional group recognized in society, whether in villages or in cities. Some even come together in a cooperative in order to better defend their interests and get a better profit from their activity. In addition, it is a sector that plays an economic role in society, because the products are sold and participate in an economic circuit that has ramifications even in the tourism sector.


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