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.
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 of secrecy, Sarah Brett-Smith has revealed a great deal about what was formerly known but unspoken in Bamana society, a context for which in contrast we know much about men's secret societies and power objects but formerly little or anything about women's parallel arts. So we are in that introduced here to a whole new world of knowledge, for instance about the nature of power and magic, and of levels of gendered secrecy and silence.
I find particularly compelling the wonderful notion that painting mud cloth is a means for enlarging the experience of silence—
This book will surely return future generations of the more meticulous Africanist scholars to the four powerful articles and a monograph, published by Sarah Brett-Smith in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics between the early 1980s and 2001, upon which this book is largely based. But it could do much more than that. It could stimulate an interest in such strikingly productive use of linguistic information for the study of material culture and ritual in African art history. Just to start, take for instance the potential for further discussion as to the problems of adequately translating the apparently simple question: “What is its meaning?” (see note 4, p. 257).
By and large the only criticism I have of this book is that it is disconnected from the larger relevant anthropological literature, particularly as regards ritual, symbolism, and the past and future of sexual inequality broadly speaking. But one must keep in mind here that it is a book about the meaning of patterns and not a treatise in anthropological theory regarding initiation and ritual symbolism. Far beyond African art history, I believe that this book might well end up further stimulating already heated debates in Africa and beyond relating to patriarchy and female circumcision. Brett-Smith's study may potentially present a useful conceptual base-line cultural context for studying social change in rural Mali since the 1960s.
For instance, the inquisitive reader might become interested in looking into the changing demographics and incidence of female circumcision in Mali and the region. Only two of Brett-Smith's informants during field work underwent excision. Has excision become that uncommon? Surely not? Would one not rather expect that a nexus might be occurring between this traditional Bamana practice and the rising affiliation with an increasingly conservative sense of Islamic identity—if that is in fact occurring in this region? Where might such convergences and divergences be going in terms of class formation, migration and religious affiliation? Moreover, in the context of a rising regional conservative agenda in an unstable political environment will not patriarchy double down and women's lives become increasingly difficult in these remote rural areas of Mali?1
Finally, Brett- Smith's book takes me back to the special issue of African Arts with a focus on West African textiles (Aronson 1992). It illustrates how far African textiles studies have come since the early 1990s, especially keeping in mind the leap from Victoria Rovine's work on contemporary Bogolan fashion (2008), an important parallel study to read alongside The Silence of the Women, to her African Fashion, Global Style (2015). It seems to me then that what we need now is an edited reader in African Textile Studies so as to provide a broad base for future such studies for African art history in the twenty-first century.
See note 13, pp. 286–87. Further afield, in the case of Indonesia, where with the onset of the medicalization of female circumcision at birth is leading to vastly increased incidence of partial or complete clitoridectomy at birth instead of the previous ritual nick (personal communication, Lies Marcoes, January 9, 2017), see Feillard and Marcoes 1998.