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Seeing through Cloth: Looms and Power in French Colonial West Africa

October 27, 2020 | Professor Victoria Rovine

Victoria Rovine

Victora L. Rovine is a Professor of Art History at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Rovine specializes in African art with a focus on African textiles and dress practices, and on Africa’s presence in Western visual culture, particularly in early twentieth-century Europe. She received her MA and Ph.D. from Indiana University. Prof. Rovine has conducted research in Mali since the early 1990s, and has also worked in Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, and elsewhere in Africa. Professor Rovine is currently an IAH Faculty Fellow.

Seeing through Cloth: Looms and Power in French Colonial West Africa

My current book project is focused on textiles and weaving in the French colony of Soudan Français (today Mali) during the interwar period of the 1920s and 30s.  On the face of it, this topic seems a world away from the pandemics of disease and racism we face today.  Yet, I find resonances of the contemporary moment in this art historical study of cloth and colonial power. My project addresses the effects of propaganda and prejudice, tensions surrounding technologies and traditions, and a history of African resistance.  This story hinges on a loom.

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Image 1: Pierre Verger, “Weavers,” Bamako, Soudan Français, 1935/36. Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence. FR ANOM 30Fi10/61. Sourceèque nationale de France.

Weavers in the Soudan Français have for centuries worked on narrow, horizontally-oriented looms that are human-powered, human-scaled, and capable of producing fabrics in a vast array of styles, from cloth for durable work clothes to extravagantly adorned prestige textiles. [Image 1] The key attributes of this type of loom, which is used exclusively by male weavers, are its horizontal orientation, with the warp stretching out in front of the weaver; the heddles the weaver operates using his feet to open and close the space between the parted warp threads; and most importantly, the width of the cloth it produces, which ranges from as narrow as half an inch to as wide as twelve inches.  While this art form and the technology used to produce it have always been subject to innovation—weavers have always experimented with new tools, fibers and styles—archaeological textiles from a burial site in central Mali reveal that the region’s textile technologies have remained remarkably consistent since the twelfth century.

Wherever the loom is used, the weaver must calculate the composition of the finished cloth based on the assembly of the narrow strips he creates. Because the finished cloth is created by sewing the strips together edge to edge, these textiles often have a sense of energy; stripes and blocks of color may butt up against each other in adjacent strips, or they may line up perfectly so that the seam between them becomes a subtle element of the cloth’s texture. [Image 2] This is the wonder of strip woven textiles: rather than limit design possibilities, the loom’s narrow warp expands the potential for creativity, making possible textiles of astounding complexity.  Industrially-produced fabric and clothing, much of it imported, now dominate markets in Mali. But strip-woven textiles still have an important place in people’s lives.  They are worn by girls and boys at some initiation ceremonies, they appear as gifts at weddings and funerals, they are treasured as bearers of tradition, and they are sold in art markets to tourists and Malians alike.

Perhaps surprisingly then, my research on colonial-era French discourse and policy on the arts in the Soudan Français reveals the widely held assumption among French administrators and other observers that the region’s weaving was in a state of decline, its plight demanding the attention of the colonial government to avert its complete disappearance.  The loom emerged as a subject of fascination and of distain, as an example of the “inferiority” of West African technology.  Even administrators who had no direct involvement with education or the arts commented on the narrow looms, which seemed to become a shorthand for the state of West African arts and culture: unsophisticated, irrational, and ripe for improvement at the hands of French officials.

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Image 2: Interior Hanging, Fulani peoples (?), Mali or Ghana, 19th c., Cotton, wool, natural dye 51” x 120” Rogers Fund, 1971. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In 1932, the Ministry of Colonies established the Maison des Artisans Soudanais in Bamako (capital of the colony) as a school for weavers, woodcarvers, and metalworkers, with the aim of “saving” these art forms.  Along with the strip looms that were used by some of the students (as in Image 1), the French added massive, complicated looms, imported from France and touted as superior.  One influential administrator enthusiastically declared after his visit to the Maison: “Let’s widen the traditional loom that weaves bands that are too narrow!”[1]   So vivid was the image of the strip loom that it drew the attention of high-level French officials, including the commissioner of a major 1937 public event in Paris, which celebrated the nation’s colonial empire.  In the Soudan Français display, he wished to “show the transformation and improvement in indigenous, primitive techniques achieved through the artisan schools (for example, the loom that weaves an entire cloth instead of the traditional narrow bands).”[2]

The widening of the loom was a priority for the administration, yet the many projects and programs to accomplish this goal failed because textile consumers preferred strip woven cloth; these purportedly “primitive” weavers competed successfully with the products of French industry.  We gain insights into this failure from rare verbatim expressions of the tastes of textile consumers in the Soudan Français, which serve as indirect retorts to the administrators and other observers who denigrated strip looms. In a 1938 report on “native” arts, an official from the Maison des Artisans Soudanais recorded the pithily expressed textile taste of a local notable: “The wider a band of cloth is, the less pretty it is.”[3]  In neighboring Niger, an anthropologist recorded the response of one consumer to the suggestion that wider looms might be more practical: “And how would we recognize rich people?, one clever person said to me. In families that have stored abundant harvests, women wear pagnes [wrappers] made of seventeen strips; in poorer families, the pagnes are made of just twelve bands!”[4]  The strip loom’s products clearly had aesthetic appeal, but they also had social significance that was specifically related to their strip-ness. A fantastic late-nineteenth century cloth from Senegal, now in the collection of the British Museum, attests to the strength of this preference.  This cloth is made of imported, machine-woven cotton that was torn into strips, then restitched together to create a sort of faux strip-woven fabric.  One can hardly imagine a more pointed declaration of the preference for strip weaving.

The maintenance of strip weaving was an act of artistic resistance, even as residents of the Soudan Français also incorporated imported cloth into their repertoires.  In spite of French-established schools and weaving centers, mischaracterizations of the region’s long history of textile production, even taxation policies that favored the products of French industry—none of this brought about the demise of the strip loom.  As my project demonstrates, an exploration of the French effort itself deepens our understanding of the centrality of textiles, weavers, and artisans more broadly to the cultures of French West Africa, a centrality maintained even in the face of the strong headwinds of colonial rule.

[1] Robert Delavignette. 1935. Soudan-Paris-Bourgogne. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset: 57-58.

[2] Letter from Edmond Labbé, Commissioner of the Exposition to Jean Le Gall, Director of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais in Bamako, 10/24/36.  Dossier C613 D921, Correspondence avec M. Le Gall, Directeur de l’Ecole de l’Artisanat de Bamako.  Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France.

[3] Alibert, Marcel. 1938. “Rapport de Tourneé d’Étude dans la Vallée du Sénégal du 10 au 25 mai 1938,” dossier 349 3D, Art et Artisanat Indigéne de l’AOF, Les Archives Nationales du Sénégal, Dakar, 6. Bouna-Kane was the son of Abdou Salam-Kane, the French-appointed chief of the Damga District.

[4] Gabus, Jean. Initiation au Désert. 1993. Lausanne: Éditions l’Age d’Homme: 79. The book traces a 1948-1949 research expedition across the Sahara, from Algiers to Niamey.