The Art of Mali
African art is as vibrant and diverse as the cultures that produce it. With artistic traditions that date back thousands of years, including sculpture, textiles, pottery, jewelry, furniture, architecture, and more, African art is a vital component of African life. It assumes a variety of functions and roles: social, political, economic, religious, historical, and therapeutic.
In his book, (see Resources: Books and Articles) curator Richard Woodward writes that works of African art were not made solely for the display of their artistic forms. "Indeed, they were meant for show, but as symbols of authority or moral lessons, being used or worn in special events and settings, on altars and in shrines, in civil and religious ceremonies, in masquerades and festivals, and sometimes in daily life. These objects are instruments for communicating with spirits, for signifying a person's status in the community, for resolving conflicts, and for passing wisdom and traditions on to succeeding generations."
Works of art created within Mali's cultural groups have long been esteemed internationally, and objects from the Dogon, the Bambara, the Fulani and other Malian peoples are treasured collections in museums throughout the world. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is fortunate to have outstanding examples of art from Mali on display in its permanent collection exhibition, Spirit of the Motherland.
The ancient empire of Mali was rich with different art forms, as is the country today. Traditionally art was practical and had day-to-day meaning linked to religion, health, village harmony, and successful agriculture.
Textiles in West Africa are typically colorful and patterned. Some are made by beating designs cut on calabash stamps onto the cloth. Wedding blankets, the blue indigo cloth of the Tuareg, and tie-dyed cloth are seen throughout Mali, as is the famous mud cloth made especially in Djenné, in which traditional or abstract designs are painted onto sheets of rough cloth using various types of soil for color, the process being done almost entirely by women.
Wooden sculptures are usually stylized, not naturalistic, and consist mostly of a single form. Gender is very important, so the sizes of body parts are exaggerated, particularly the head, buttocks, breasts, and navel. Masks are carved and used to disguise the wearers as they impersonate ancestors or spirits. The antelope-like masks of the Bambara, called chiwaras, are particularly well known, as are the elaborate Dogon masks. When a Dogon dies, the spirit of the deceased is believed to take up residence in a mask, so these are most important in funeral rites. The Dogon also make elaborately carved wooden doors, locks, and house posts for their mud buildings.
Jewelry is important to both men and women. Gold is preferred among all the people of Mali except the Tuareg, who prefer silver. Wealthy Fulani women wear huge 14-carat gold earrings that are so heavy that the top of each earring is bound with red wool or silk to protect the ear. In the Dogon area women traditionally wear eight small rings on the rim of the ear, signifying the eight Dogon ancestors. Fulani and Dogon women also prize beads made of amber. Some beads are made of clay and stone and incised with geometrical patterns - particularly the whorl which has been used on beads for at least a thousand years. People in Mali frequently wear talismans and charms (grisgris) to ward off evil spirits. Amulets, bracelets, and rings are also used. Cowrie shells are often used to decorate jewelry.
Traditional West African music has many melodies and rhythms occurring simultaneously, making it both polyphonic and polyrhythmic. Many instruments are used, including strings, flutes, and many varieties of drums. One of the best known stringed instruments in Mali is the kora, a harp-lute type instrument, with 21 strings that are supported over a long neck made of rosewood. The neck pierces a large hemispherical gourd that is covered with cowhide. The back of the gourd is often decorated with interesting stud patterns. The kora is placed vertically in the lap of the player who plucks the strings with the thumb and index finger of each hand. The flute was traditionally played by Fulani shepherds and made from millet stalks, bamboo, and gourds. Drums are made in all shapes and sizes. Used for communication as well as music, drums are generally covered with goatskins.
Storytellers, called griots, were the village entertainers, oral historians, and genealogists. They would sing the praises of people celebrating life events and tell the stories of the great leaders of Mali, stories that were appropriately embellished to command respect and reverence. One of the greatest of these stories is about Sundjata, the Lion King, founder of the Mali empire.
Mali boasts very distinctive architecture, seen noticeably in the different shapes of buildings and building materials used in the villages of the different ethnic groups found in Mali--the Dogon, Bambara, Bozo, Fulani, etc. Likewise, mosques in Mali are very distinctive, generally made of sun-dried mud, with beams and branches of trees sticking out of them to aid in the yearly refinishing of the mosque after the summer rains.