This posting was submitted by Janet Goldner a New York-based artist who has worked in Mail over the last 37 years. Her main contacts and collaborators are member of the Groupe Bogolan Kasobane who have been instrumental in reviving and preserving traditional Malian textile techniques and cultural objects particularly the clay slip painting known as “bogolan.” This posting is excerpted from a longer piece and includes a summary of conversations between Goldner and two members of the Kasobane group: Kleitgui Dembele and Kandioura Coulibaly.
Members of the Groupe and I met in 1994 during the first month of my Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship. Kasobane is my Malian family and most of my projects in Mali have involved members of the Groupe. This artistic collaboration is at its core, a friendship. This friendship can result in helping to sustain ourselves and each other as artists, offering understanding and support to our explorations, experiments, inclinations. These relationships have also resulted in and influenced concrete projects and works of art both individual and collective. It is about respect, connection, community, responsibility and privileges. An important aspect of such friendships across culture, race, history is a sort of balancing act between seeing no difference and never for a second forgetting the differences.
When artists meet each other, in order to work together, it comes from our ideas. With Kasobane, we found that you had ideas and we had ideas, and our ideas converged towards the same point. We had the same way of understanding the problems of this world. We had just about the same thinking.
The Kasobane are defenders of traditional culture. And when you arrived here, we saw that you also defended traditional culture. Your residence in Mali was in Segou, in a little village, isolated, cut off by the river. And our point of departure was also Segou, thus we saw that we had about the same way of seeing things.
And your way of working also. You work in steel and we work with clay. And we said to ourselves that this is the work of the same person. Because traditionally it is the blacksmiths who are the 1st artists. We who are men and should work in steel, she is the one who works in steel. And women who should work in clay, and we are the ones who work with clay. That was something that attracted our attention also.
You see the U. S., you see Mali and you see artists that manage to find each other and pull each other like with a cable. The way we collaborate is to come here and to see our culture and to be in this culture, to give a force in expressing your thoughts from another culture and taking the best of this culture. And to say yes, in agreeing to enter, the other can receive this culture like that by pulling African collaboration towards an American collaboration.
Our way of collaborating brings a new way of working. To always work within the same system can become monotonous and repetitive. Artistic and social collaboration and evolution of the society in collaboration gives a lot of harmony.
When I am in Bamako, I live in Magnanbougou close to where my collaborators live. We spend much of each day together sharing our lives, working, eating, laughing, arguing, visiting friends and relatives, going to the market in search of art materials or the tailor’s. I have been to the remote villages where my friends were born thought they have lived in Bamako for a long time. I have met their mothers, brothers and cousins. I have watched children grow up and family dramas unfold over the years. And I have played a part in these events.
My aim has always been to break down barriers. My interest in Mali was first in the philosophy of the culture itself as much as artistic techniques and forms. When I see or hear something that seems strange, rather than thinking that my Malian friends are misinformed or misguided, I try to interrogate, where their beliefs come from, and analyze what we, as westerners do in response to that same need. I’m the one who doesn’t understand. I may see a different circumstance or environment but the underlying cause is often not so different. It is the richness of the diversity of cultural adaptations that continues to fascinate me.
Working collaboratively and developing new approaches to the centuries’-old technique of bogolan, Kasobane has continued to feature it in their art and award-winning costume and set designs for film and stage as well as fabrics for fashion and home furnishings. Some of the cloths are part of the Kasobane collection and others are Kasobane creations. The Bamana immigrated from Djenne and went to Ghana to work as night watchmen, and they embroidered so as not to fall asleep. This was between the 1950’s and 1970. They tried to make the bogolan designs on the white cloth with kente thread. They created an art that doesn’t exist in Ghana and that also didn’t exist in Mali. When they returned to Mali, they showed what they had seen in Ghana to their fiancés: the people, the figures, the fashion in Ghana.
The Groupe has adapted another Malian textile tradition that they call gauffrage, French for “waffling.” Inspired by the thick cotton hats worn by Malian hunters for protection from both physical and spiritual hazards, they fabricate works of art by sewing overall linear and geometric designs into double-layered cotton fabrics. The cloths are then stuffed to create a ribbed quiltlike effect. Not unlike hunters, who are sensitive to their environment as they search for food, medicines, and other community needs, Groupe Bogolan Kasobane continues its quest for intellectual and artistic ideals of beauty and cultural preservation.
The Groupe is working on the larger project that engages many African intellectuals these days, of researching, uncovering, reconstructing the hidden history that is under the history as it has been written. They are concerned with preserving and perpetuating the cultural heritage of Mali which is disappearing due to the cultural disruption and erasure that resulted from colonialism and continues with globalization. The Groupe’s contribution is their ability to interpret and transform the stories that are told by the material culture that remains.
It is very hard for us to see ourselves growing because the trees that grow up together can’t see the beauty they make. It is someone else who can see. You come and you see me. I can’t see myself. To see yourself, you have to look in the mirror. The first mirror is the eye of the other, who is there in you. But in the eye of the other, you don’t see yourself, you see the other person and with all his interior. You don’t see yourself. It is someone else who knows you better than you.
The life of a good collaboration is your light, if you have enough, to open your window so that the other can have some of your light. This is a form of collaboration — mystic, artistic, intimate and true.
Photographs of Kandioura Coulibaly, Kletigui Dembele by Janet Goldner
Photograph of Janet Goldner by Teri Slotkin
Janet Goldner, “Can We Acknowledge?,” 2005. 4′ x 25′ x 4′, steel. Photo ©Lisa Kahane.
Photograph of Bogolan Cloth by Lisa Kahane
Photograph Gauffrage Cloth by Janet Goldner