Time-Honored Techniques

Dyeing with Aboubakar Fofana

In May 2012, quick vat indigo dyeing and Malian Bogolanfini or bogolan (mud dyeing) techniques were introduced at a small workshop. It was hosted by world-renowned Malian dye expert, Aboubakar Fofana from Mali, and felt designer, Ronel Jordaan. This two day intensive workshop targeted the art sectors who are currently dyeing with commercial dyes, as well as individuals in the NGO craft sector looking to learn more about traditional and natural dyeing techniques. Imbabli VisualLiteracy, including several South African dye and mohair businesses, took part. The training shed light on the complexities and history of these unique and creative processes. The workshop was rich in knowledge, as Fofana is known for his limited edition indigo textiles and calligraphy, and Ronel is an innovative South African felt designer who has exhibited her works worldwide. They all had met the previous year in Ronel's factory in Johannesburg, where the concept for the forum was first incepted.

Photographer and Africa Craft Trust program manager, Lauren Barkume was also there. For Lauren, the most surprising aspect of the workshop was learning about both current and historic techniques of indigo dyeing. She explains, “I had not realized that indigo dyeing was a fermentation process, and to keep a vat 'alive', it must be fed and cared for daily. Indigo vats can be preserved for over a year, and as they age and eventually exhaust their potential, the color they yield goes from a deep blue to a soft and airy sky blue. Aboubakar Fofana names his vats and compares taking care of them to tending to a newborn.” Lauren found it particularly interesting to see the different effect that indigo had on each type of fiber, from soft mohair to silks and cottons: "Each took on a life and color of its own."

The process is tedious, yet eye opening. Lauren comments, “Indigo is prepared from the fresh plant, and undergoes an elaborate extraction process which takes about a month. After the fresh plants are soaked in water and fermented, the bath is then aerated in order to oxidize the indigo. A sludge forms at the bottom, and excess water is drained off. The sludge is packed and dried into cakes, which are sold and used to create a quick vat of indigo by grinding the cake into a fine powder. Water is added to the powdered indigo, ground again, and then added to the vat along with sugar and lime, which provide food for the fermentation and create the alkaline environment needed to achieve gorgeous blues. The temperature in Mali is perfect for indigo, and the warmth is maintained in large clay pots. Once the vat is rested and prepared, one can carefully dip fabric into the vat. As it is pulled out, the cloth changes from green to characteristic blue when it makes contact with the air. The cloth is dipped over and over to deepen the shade of blue.” 

The Bogolan (or mudcloth) process is also extremely detailed and fascinating, and it is another traditional Malian technique. The fabric is prepared with a locally harvested vegetable mordant, which is a substance used to open fibers up to dyestuffs. Lauren adds, “After preparing the cloth and painting on the iron rich mud, a chemical reaction permanently dyes the cloth a dark grey. The color can be deepened to black by repeating the process several times. The mud is selected and harvested in Mali during only one month of the year. The best mud is found a day’s boat ride away in the center of the river. Strong men help dive to the river floor to fill buckets that will be sealed and used throughout the year.” 

For more photographs, please visit: http://barkumephotography.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/indigo-dyeing/    

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