- The Silence of the Women: Bamana Mud Cloths by Sarah C. Brett-Smith
by Sarah C. Brett-Smith
Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2014. 317 pages, 48 color ill., 31 b/w ill., 29 diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. €55.00 cloth
The Silence of the Women: Bamana Mud Cloths is a lavishly illustrated, exquisitely detailed, and highly readable analysis of textile patterns from the Beledugu and Fadugu regions in south west Mali in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Brett-Smith's research, focusing on the meanings of textiles in relation to gender relations, is a classic study of the visual language of a textiles, status, and identity not only in a traditional, precolonial rural context but in the larger colonial and post-colonial context as well. Above all, Brett-Smith provides a fabulous account of the vital magical functions mud cloth served and the ritual and nonritual contexts in which they were created and used.
Drawing on interviews with the elder artists she interviewed between 1976 and 1998, Brett-Smith lays out a careful elaboration of the linguistic and ethnographic evidence for the unstated significance of patterns and their "amuletic" function in this textile tradition. Throughout the study, careful attention is given to the overall patterns in which the designs are placed as well as to the construction of the patterns and motifs. In addition, the author well illustrates connections to other traditions such as the potential transfer of patterns and design elements from Islamic leather work. All in all, it is a very fine example of how art historians can reveal the aesthetic principles of material traditions based on cultural practices and religious beliefs, even when these principles are unstated. [End Page 93]
Particularly interesting is Brett-Smith's use (p. 130) of Christopher Bollas's psychological notion of the "unstated known" in The Shadow of the Object (1987). This is an especially useful concept considering the reluctance of her informants, particularly women, to admit to knowing anything about the meanings of motifs and, beyond that, their repeated statements that the designs mean nothing. She notes how this is "profoundly disturbing" to Western thought (p. 27) and reflects upon how this poses a special problem for her research. We learn, for instance, the disquieting facts that Bamana women "are always looking over their shoulder to watch who might hear" (p. 33). They have to deliberately hide their knowledge. And even more significantly, Brett-Smith describes that they "instinctively avoid linking discrete units of knowledge into an overarching structure" (pp. 29). In short, to avoid becoming targets they have to "choose to exist in a permanent state of secure ignorance" (p. 32). This book will thus surely trigger intense reaction. I cannot help but wonder what the situation might be like today, considering the rising Islamist presence, the instability in the region, and the changes that might have taken place since the author last conducted fieldwork there.
Brett-Smith has achieved the difficult task of revealing a great deal about the impenetrable silence that surrounds the secrecy and resistance inherent in Bamana women's lives, as well as their resilience. She persuasively overcomes the ultimate interpretive challenge in anthropology and art history, which is to legitimately extrapolate symbolic meaning from the unstated. She consistently shows that silence was always the rule, that women, for their own protection, had to make sure that whatever they said was understood as "nothing"—as "garbage of no account." This surely begs for a contemporary analysis of social change in rural and urban settings in the region. Again, one is left wondering to what degree such practices and social mores remain in place and to what degrees they may be contested and in what contexts.
Strangely enough, perhaps, no mention is made here of the important book edited by Mary H. Nooter to accompany the show on secrecy at the Center for African Art in New York in 1993, Secrecy: African Art That Conceals and Reveals. I cannot help but wonder if such a silence intends to reveal or conceal something. Nevertheless, in terms of the anthropology...