Contemporary Art in Mali

By the early 1980s, young urban artists began researching bogolanfini technology as a practical alternative to imported art materials. In the process they created a new genre of painting known as “Fine Art Bogolan,” which incorporates a broad palate of vegetal and mineral dyes and regularly features decorative motifs derived from the iconography of powerful secret associations and initiation societies. To express their Malian heritage and cosmopolitan identity, their compositions blend local and Western art traditions, drawing inspiration from abstract expressionist, figurative, and gestural painting, as well as indigenous dying and embroidery techniques.

In contrast to the spiritually potent, rural productions of Bamana women, these recent manifestations are created by men—most often graduates of the National Art Institute (l’Institut National des Arts) in Bamako—to be displayed on the walls of art galleries, museums, and collectors’ homes. Thus, they appear in a wide variety of sizes and formats, and are regularly signed and dated.

Among the first to consider the creative possibilities of the technique was Kandiora Coulibaly who helped found the artists’ cooperative Group Bogolan Kasobane, which remains one of the country’s most inspirational and visible proponents of the medium today. The six members of Groupe Bogolan Kasobane – Kadioura Coulibaly, Klétigui Dembélé, Boubacar Doumbia, Souleymane Goro, Baba Keita and Néné Thiam are largely responsible for popularizing bogolan as a symbol of national and pan-national identity.

In Mali, as with all communities, the arts have always merged contemporary and traditional elements. They reflect changing cultural trends as well as fluctuating economic, political, and social conditions over time. Thus, one cannot easily speak of traditional or contemporary art as separate categories. Nevertheless, to reflect a major shift in artistic training, materials, and audiences, “contemporary art” in Mali typically refers to that produced in the country’s urban centers (as well as abroad by ex-patriots) since the 1950s.

What we are calling “contemporary art,” therefore, began during the French colonial period before the Republic of Mali gained its political independence in 1960. Concentrated in the capital city of Bamako, this era witnessed the development of several formalized educational and professional institutions and the popularization of new urban professions such as those practiced by tailors, photographers, sign painters, and recording artists. In Bamako, one of these facilities remains the nation’s largest fine art school, known today as the National Institution of the Arts (l’Institut National des Arts or l’INA). Offering courses in jewelry-making and design, illustration, painting, sculpture, photography, music, and theater, since the 1950s, it has produced many of Mali’s most celebrated artists and has hosted or helped sponsor a number of exhibitions, workshops, and performances.

After independence, Mali experienced a nationalist fervor that has been reflected in its arts. Like many of its neighbors on the continent, artistic and cultural production in Mali turned to local art traditions for inspiration. As part of this revival, African professors began replacing French instructors at institutions such as l’INA. Furthermore, since the 1980s, driven by the interests and realities of its students and graduates, locally-produced materials, such as vegetal pigments, cotton fibers, wool, and graphic systems have been incorporated within the curriculum alongside imported products, such as acrylic and oil paints, canvas, pastels, and artistic vocabularies. For example, artists belonging to the Groupe Bogolan Kasobane and fashion designer Chris Seydou have used materials, processes, and designs inspired by bogolanfini (the Bamananknan term for mud-dyed cotton cloth that has been practiced for centuries in western Africa) to create clothing, set designs, items for home décor, and fine art pieces. Cencen Bari, sand painting, has also been practiced by Malian artists in recent decades to be collected by both local and foreign patrons.

Although art has been important in Mali for centuries, and exhibitions of fine art have been held in the country since the colonial era, international awareness of “contemporary” art in Mali, and in Africa more generally, heightened in the early1990s after the advent of two important exhibitions: Les Magiciens de la Terre in Paris (1989) and Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art in New York City (1991). Due to this attention, today Bamako is home to several biennials as well as national and international exhibitions, artistic workshops, and exchange programs which have helped to launch the careers of young artists while rekindling those of older generations.

Testament to the thriving art community in Mali a number of Africa’s globally renowned artists are Malian. These personalities include two of the most famous photographers from Africa, Malick Sidibé and Seydou Këita, as well as collage and installation artist Abdoulaye Konaté, painter Ismaël Diabate, textile artists Nakunté Diarra and Kandioura Coulibaly, fashion designers Chris Seydou, Alphadi, and Xuly Bët, filmmakers Souleymane Cissé and Cheick Oumar Sissoko, and musicians Salif Këita, Habib Koité, and Oumou Sangaré, many of whom graduated from l’INA.

Candace M. Keller, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Art and Art History /
Residential College in the Arts & Humanities