Rovine, Victoria L. Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008. $24.95 paper.
The second edition of Victoria Rovine’s book, Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali, presents a well-structured look at Bogolan traditional cloth in Mali. She focuses her writing on Bamako, the capital of the West African country. Throughout the book she explores themes of identity, authenticity, and tradition, as they are connected with the popular cloth, called bogolan. Bogolan is a traditional Malian cloth, which typically requires a labor-intensive process to create. Rovine details the production process, from the weaving of the cloth to the multiple dyeing processes. The author provides a concise overview of the cloth, as well as a solid background for her arguments about the cloth’s changing role in Mali and abroad.
Rovine’s main claim is that Bogolan comes into play in the negations of tradition and modernity in Mali and that the cloth is used as a tool in creating identities. She believes these may be identities of “authentic” Malian culture, as well as identities within the “global” blending of cultures (14). In the ten chapters in the book, Rovine presents a series of overlapping themes and ideas. The introductory chapter includes her main arguments and clearly lays out the following chapters. The second chapter provides a historical look at bogolan, also called bogolanfini and mudcloth. She discusses the techniques for production of the cloth, and also introduces some of its various forms, citing both ritual uses as well as contemporary manifestations. Rovine introduces the cloth as being traditionally made by women, but discusses the shift from all female to mostly male production. The third and fourth chapters are the first paired set of chapters, which incorporate a continuous theme. Exploring bogolan’s role in Bamako’s tourist art market is the central focus of these two chapters. Chapter 3 and 4 investigate the adaptations that are made to the cloth, and the cloth’s production, when it is created for quick sale to tourists. She notes the use of stencils and alternative dyes. Rovine argues that while the production is changed, the authenticity of the cloth is not damaged. She claims that by using traditional symbols on the cloth, or providing a text with the traditional uses of the cloth, the producer and seller still provide an authentic version of bogolan.
The next two chapters move to the arena of studio art in Mali. Rovine writes that many Malian studio artists use bogolan materials and iconography in their work. She introduces several of these artists, many of whom describe the challenges they face when attempting to move beyond the Malian art scene. Rovine notes that when using bogolan imagery, the artists are usually placed in the category of African fine art, even though some of them would prefer to be in the category of contemporary fine art. The seventh and eighth chapters look at the contemporary uses of bogolan. In contemporary Mali, bogolan cloth and imagery are used for making clothing, such as hats, vests, and shorts, as well as for various housewares. The author argues that these creative uses of the cloth allow Malians to adapt, and express opinions about, their “traditional” culture. Rovine then looks at bogolan in the United States, where it has gained popularity in recent decades. She describes the dramatic changes artists made to the cloth in the U.S., while still maintaining ties to “authentic” Malian, or African culture. In her final chapter, Rovine revisits the themes presented in the previous chapters, making final comments on the innovations made to the traditional Malian cloth.
Rovine is successful in weaving her main themes throughout the chapters of the book. Each chapter, example, and case study ties in the ideas of tradition, modernity, identity, or authenticity. The success of her book comes from the multiple examples she uses and her apparently thorough research in Bamako. I would argue, however, that the organization of the book is its greatest asset. As mentioned earlier, she clearly lays out the book in the introductory chapter. Rovine also makes a point to define the terminology she uses and provide background on historical and contemporary research she references. She also smoothly transitions between each paragraph and chapter. I was also pleased that she re-defined important terms in later parts of the book, reminding the reader to what she is referring. Each of these techniques allows the reader to follow her arguments.
I believe she adds interest to her academic writing style with a wide variety of images, examples of quotes, and case studies. However, she occasionally describes discussions with people in Bamako, but does not include specific quotes. I believe this would be beneficial to validate the claims she makes. There were also a couple instances where the language she uses contributes to what seem to be exaggerated claims. For example, regarding fine artists in Mali she writes, “Diabate is the only artist who has made a personal statement of protest against this non-local control” (76). I questioned if this artist was indeed the “only” example, or if he was the only example Rovine came across. However, Rovine’s clear writing style and organization allow her to successfully argue her claims, as well as to inform the reader about Malian’s cloth traditions.
While I find her book very and informative, I question whether Rovine is providing new information on bogolan. Early in the book, Rovine writes that the cloth is made in many regions throughout Mali, but that research has been overwhelmingly focused on Bamako and nearby areas. She writes that bogolan fabrics from this region are most often on display in galleries and in publications and also that scholarship has focused on this area (16). Because of this statement, I was surprised that she continued research on the same area. More contribution to the study of bogolan should probably come from research in other regions of Mali.
I would recommend Rovine’s book to anyone interested in West African culture, negotiations between tradition and modernity, or material culture in general. Her book provides a wealth of information on Bamana artists, markets, clothing, and bogolan. I believe she also presents readers and students with an example of a well-written, well-organized book. The methods she uses to organize her book would certainly be beneficial to students, or anyone working on academic writing. I found Rovine’s book to be informative and interesting, and would consider this a successful example of writing on material culture.