Deciphering the African Mudcloth’s Secret Motifs – Paulski Art

Deciphering the African Mudcloth’s Secret Motifs

I knew the secret decoding of the fabric from the Garden of Eden would send you spiraling for a good read! Well, if a good read is what you are looking for, the an amazing read is what you will get! Let’s admit. The craze about the African continent has been nothing but insane! Africa has always been a continent of mystery and intrigue. It was the birthplace of humanity, the cradle of civilization, and the last place on earth to be colonized by Europeans. As a result, it’s often been a place of fascination for outsiders. From the land, to the minerals, to the history, to the culture. It isn’t called the Garden of Eden for nothing!

Now that people are moving back to nature to find themselves, heal themselves and discover the meaning of their existence, nature in Africa has been a friendly ally. Not forgetting the culture of the people that co-existed with this nature, creating organic and ethical products that enabled them to authentically draw from nature’s spirit and create harmony amongst communities. One of the one’s being the African Mudcloth from Mali, a country in Africa’s Western Sahara region. For something to manifest in the physical, it had to happen in the spiritual. That’s why African communities had spiritual leaders that predicted rain, seasons, healed, etc.


Spirituality is a broad term that can be defined in many ways. It can be defined as the search for meaning and purpose in life. It can also be defined as the beliefs, values, practices, rituals, and experiences of a group or society that are considered to have deep meaning and significance. The African mudcloth was created and engraved with symbols that meant something to protect the people. It has been an important part of African culture for centuries. The mudcloth is made by using a cotton fabric, which is dipped in natural dye, and then stretched on a frame to dry. As the cloth dries it adheres to the frame and works its way into the weave of fibers. This process leaves behind beautiful, abstract patterns which are often utilized as symbols or messages. The meaning of the symbols depends on the location where they were created and the culture of the community that creates them.

To dive into the mudcloth’s secret symbols, it is important to note that dress has been instrumental in reinforcing images and social boundaries with outsiders. Such images are both projected on the body itself or the clothes covering the body. I believe that an image is more than a product of perception, rather the result of personal or collective knowledge and intention. These associations exemplify individuals‟ bonds with cultural codes and conventions. The designed motifs are usually abstract or semi-abstract representations of everyday objects. Now that we are all caught up… ready to learn of the secret symbols and their meanings? Let’s get right into it! Well, the ones that have been deciphered!

Beds of Bamboo and Millet, Farmers Sickle, Iguana's Elbow, Wealth and Luxury, Spindle, Brave and Fearless, and Calabash Flowers are some of the most common pattern units. These pattern units can be representational, symbolic, or both in usage have meaning and implication.

Beds of Bamboo and Millet: this pattern unit is used by women who wish to show their superiority to their rivals in a typical West African polygamous marriage setting. Due to its popularity today, it is not always assumed that a woman wearing it is making any rivalry references.

Iguana's Elbow: the African iguanas are relatively small herbivorous lizards compared to the same species in the Americas, averaging around six and a half feet (two metres) long and weighing about eleven pounds (five kilograms). In Africa, they represent good fortune. An iguana can lead a hunter to water and is also symbolic of African people in warfare with foreign powers.

Wealth and Luxury: this basic design unit is more representational than symbolic. It is believed to have originated from the Mauritania area and was done on cushions of rich women. Such women are so wealthy they do not have to work but just rest their heads on pillows such as those designed with this pattern unit.

Spindle: this design represents the spindle which is a rod or pin, tapered at one end and usually weighted at the other, on which fibres are spun by hand into thread and then wound onto a bobbin. It is a very old and traditional design; this was originally designed to highlight the usefulness of the endearing spindle.

Brave and Fearless: this represents a belt used by warriors before they went off to battle. Although it is a foreign concept, the warrior belt became very essential in many West African cultures. It is believed to possess super natural powers that make the wearer’s strength invincible.

Calabash Flowers: this refers to the elegant and unique flowers of the calabash or gourd plant. Unlike most plant flowers, calabash flowers come much alive in the night hence pollination is done by night insects for the setting of its calabash fruits. The matured fruit varies in shape and size and they have a variety of uses. The dried calabash or gourds are hollowed out and are very typical utensils in households across West Africa. They are used to clean rice, carry water and as food containers. Smaller sizes are used as bowls to drink palm wine or other traditional drinks. Calabash has also found application in musical instruments such the harp–lute, lute, traditional fiddle and percussion instruments. The calabash flowers are very significant because without them there would be no calabash or contribution from them to the social life of West Africa. Calabash flowers is a popular pattern that shows prosperity from the calabash flowers.


Dive into Africa’s beautiful history with us. And grab yourself an emblem of Africa’s mudcloth while you are at it!