This article explores the cultural and historical context of textiles that were never woven, the product of failed efforts by a colonial administration to transform a distinctive West African art form: strip-woven cotton fabric. Although these textiles were the result of an unsuccessful project, they nonetheless provide insights into the agency of visual culture at colonial intersections. Textiles that were woven also figure in this exploration of cotton and colonialism, primarily to emphasize their distinction from those that were not. Both sets of textiles are from the Soudan Français (today Mali), the largest of France's West African colonies and a major cotton producer. Although we know little about the forms these never-made—more accurately, almost never-made—objects might have taken, we do know why and when they were to be made. These textiles would have been created in the 1930s, a decade that saw two events that featured West African weaving: the 1937 Exposition International des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris and the 1932 founding of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais in Bamako, capital of the Soudan Français (Figs. 1–2, 13). At both, French colonial policy and the long history of cotton in the region intersected, producing commentary, images, and policies that indicate the many ways in which a colonial government sought to harness this medium to project images and to support an array of policies. An exploration of these many cotton manifestations deepens our understanding of the centrality of the fiber and its artisans to the imagery and the implementation of French rule in West Africa.
In the account of these events and their un-made (or scarcely made) textiles, we can learn much about the multiplicity of strategies the French administration deployed in an effort to make use of the region's visual culture in their exercise of colonial power. In the colony and in the metropole, the French administration used West African cotton textiles—from raw cotton to finished cloth—in support of cultural as well as economic strategies; while the latter has been thoroughly examined by other scholars, the former has not, and it is my focus here. As I will demonstrate, French officials harnessed cotton in its woven forms to meet their narrative needs, fueling colonial imagery, just as surely as they aimed to use cotton in its raw form as the foundation of their economic programs, fueling colonial industry.
The French colonial narrative supported the structure of the overseas empire through the characterization of the cultures of the colonies, producing an implicit or explicit contrast with the metropole. The administration projected this narrative through images, events, and objects as well as text, all of which were threaded through with strands of cotton, particularly during the interwar period. France's minister of the colonies from 1920 to 1924, Albert Sarraut, described the many media by which the administration's message would be diffused: “It is absolutely essential that a methodical, serious, continuous propaganda through word and image, through newspapers, conferences, films, and expositions can have an impact throughout our country” (Fig. 4).1 To this long list we can add textiles and weaving, which the French administration hoped to employ as another mode of propaganda delivery. My fiber-focused exploration of French policy in the 1920s and ‘30s demonstrates the exceptionally tortuous nature of this narrative, whose purveyors twisted themselves in knots as elaborate as could be found on any loom.
One type of loom, in fact, was a leading player in the colonial narrative promoted by members of the French administration in Soudan Français and in Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF) as a whole, the federation of colonies of which the Soudan Français was the largest and most cotton-centric. The loom in question, generally referred to as a strip loom,2 is a prominent element of the region's visual cultures, employed by weavers across Soudan Français and beyond (Figs. 5, 8). Although its prominence in large cities has faded in recent decades, weavers at work on strip looms are still common sights in towns and small villages, along street sides, in family compounds, and at cultural centers. This loom's impact on the structure and style of textiles is arguably greater—or at least more immediately discernible—than that of other looms. Colonial administrators could readily recognize the products of strip looms, whose bands of cloth were joined together at seams that ran the length of the wrappers, gowns, and blankets that were the strip loom's most common products. The looms are equally distinctive, easy to distinguish from other forms of textile production. As technology, as fabric, and as clothing, the strip loom's manifestations were fodder for criticism and proposed correctives in France's colonial narrative. After his visit to the Maison des Artisans Soudanais, colonial administrator Robert Delavignette expressed the prevalent French assessment of the region's weaving, succinctly identifying the problem and its simple solution: “Let's widen the traditional loom that weaves bands that are too narrow” (1935: 57–58). As we will see, this conviction that the loom was too narrow led to numerous administrative and technological programs, initiated by colonial officials and promoted in prominent venues as exemplars of France's successful stewardship of the colony.
We gain insights into the outcome of this drive to remake the strip loom from rare verbatim expressions of the tastes of textile consumers in the AOF, which serve as indirect retorts to Delavignette. In a 1938 report on “native” arts in the Senegal River Valley, which traverses Mali and Senegal, an official from the Maison des Artisans Soudanais recorded the pithily expressed textile taste of a local notable named Bouna-Kane, son of Abdou Salam-Kane, the French-appointed chief of the Damga District: “The wider a band of cloth is, the less pretty it is”3 (Alibert 1938: 6). A decade later, in neighboring Niger, Swiss anthropologist Jean Gabus, writing of a 1948–1949 research expedition across the Sahara from Algiers to Niamey, recorded the response of one consumer to the suggestion that wider looms might be more practical:
“And how would we recognize rich people?” one clever Djerma man said to me. “In families that have stored abundant harvests, women wear pagnes [wrappers] made of seventeen strips; in poorer families, the pagnes are made of just twelve bands!” (Gabus 1993: 79).
The strip loom's products might have aesthetic appeal—deemed prettier than other textiles—but they also had social significance that was specifically related to their strip-ness. This, in two succinct statements, is why the textiles that are our subject were never made: The widened loom Delavignette and many others promoted found no purchase among its intended beneficiaries. But an exploration of the effort itself, which gave the strip loom and cotton textiles prominence in the era's colonial discourse, deepens our understanding of the centrality of textiles, weavers, and artisans more broadly to the imagery and the exercise of French rule in West Africa.
This imperial focus on weaving reflected the economic value of the fiber that was worked on the strip loom, for the Soudan Français was exceptionally important among France's cotton-producing colonies. As Richard Roberts describes in his definitive study of cotton policies in AOF, attention to the colony's cotton potential increased in the years after World War I:
The war made French industrialists and state officials acutely aware of their dependence on imported raw materials and of the importance and potential of the colonies for the reconstruction and development of the metropolitan economy. Cotton was considered a commodity of national importance (1996: 109).
Roberts's focus is on the colonial politics of cotton agriculture and the commodity markets for cotton. He also places French colonial cotton policies in the context of the fiber's long history in West Africa, where for centuries it has been grown, processed, traded, woven, and worn. This long history, Roberts demonstrates, shaped—and foiled—the French administration's programs for cotton production and export to the metropole. To the great frustration of bureaucrats and merchants, French demand could not successfully compete with local and regional markets.
My focus is on French responses to this West African weaving rather than on cotton as raw material, for when this fiber reached the loom it was woven into an array of colonial-era interests and images. In AOF, the French singled out one element of cotton's West African culture for their attention and their approbation: the strip loom. Their cotton-centered policies reinforced the French imaginary of the colony and its residents, and they aimed to demonstrate the salutary impact of French governance. The strip loom encapsulated these policies, playing a crucial role as a leçon des choses, an object that effectively imparts a message. The loom was yoked to multiple messages in French colonial discourse. It illustrated the ostensible inferiority of the cultures of the Soudan Français: too narrow, undersized as if immature or stunted. The loom's supposed need for growth also provided an opportunity for French benevolence, “remedying” its narrow warp through changes to the technology. But the strip loom could do still more, for the administration's attention to textiles and their technologies demonstrated official endorsement of the visual culture of the “natives,” and their care for its preservation.
Although efforts to transform the loom were not successful, the French administration accorded significant prominence to this textile-focused project, as evidenced by our first images (Figs. 1–2). These photographs provide an especially vivid illustration of the propaganda value of this project, representing two looms, narrow and wide, in a comparison that might imply a “before and after” scenario, with the wider loom as the culmination. The two looms were presented together in the Soudan Français pavilion at the 1937 Exposition, their display recorded in a photograph published in a commemorative album (Fig. 3). With a single page devoted to each colony or colonial federation, the depiction of weavers is notable—Morocco and Indochina are the only others represented by images of artisans (“La France d'Outre-Mer” 1937). A second illustration of the two types of looms appears in a pair of photographs, also created in 1937, in Bamako, capital of the colony that was represented at the Exposition by our Parisian weavers. The Bamako weavers were photographed as they worked at the Maison des Artisans Soudanais, an institution that was at the center of the administration's cotton-related policies. These images represent the outcome of French efforts: propaganda and promotion of their aspirations rather than actual change to the cotton-related practices of their West African subjects.
Through weavers, I explore the complex nature of French authorities' interest in artisans.4 Weavers, blacksmiths, and other makers appear in the archives of colonial governance as exemplars of nearly every characteristic attributed to the “inferior” cultures of the colonies and of the ostensibly beneficial impact of French rule. These associations strained against a separate but simultaneous narrative that celebrated the authenticity, the purity of these artisans and their products, which were fast being eroded by the presence of European goods. Another layer of complexity—indeed irony—appeared in the 1930s, leaving traces in the archives of both the 1937 Exposition and the Maison des Artisans Soudanais. Amid the commentary of high-ranking colonial officials, we find the assertion that artisans, including weavers, were ideally placed to serve as intermediaries of French rule, facilitating colonial administration in their communities. These contradictory impulses—criticism, nostalgia, and identification—point to the figurative as well as literal suppleness of cotton and cotton textiles, which perfectly express the inherent paradox of French colonial rule in West Africa.
COTTON AS COLONIAL RESOURCE: ASPIRATIONS AND FRUSTRATIONS
The AOF administration's focus on weaving reflects a much larger intersection of cotton and colonial power, for this medium embodies the late nineteenth century wave of colonization that reshaped the modern world. Placing the Soudan Français in this context helps us to appreciate the significance of the colony to France, as it represented a stake in a fierce global competition in which African polities and people were disempowered by coercion and by force. Sven Beckert's sweeping history Empire of Cotton traces this fluffy white fiber from its earliest uses in small-scale, often household-based manufacture in South Asia and the Americas, to explosive globalization, commodification, and industrialization beginning in late eighteenth century Britain and quickly spreading to the rest of Europe and beyond. Beckert describes the vast consequences of this history:
Because of the centrality of cotton, its story is also the story of the making and remaking of global capitalism and with it of the modern world. … Capturing the biological bounty of an ancient plant, and the skills and huge markets of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, European entrepreneurs and statesmen built an empire of cotton of tremendous scope and energy (2014: xi-xii).
In order to exploit those skills and markets, European aspirants to the exponentially growing demand for cotton textiles contended for technologies and overseas possessions, creating in much of the world beyond Western Europe systems of slave agriculture, expropriation of land, and “a wave of deindustrialization” that continue to resonate into the present (Beckert 2014: xvii). While cotton was not the only motivation for colonization, Isaacman and Roberts describe the fiber's importance across Europe's African colonies:
The cotton textile industry was a central consumer production section in all of the European nations that scrambled to control African territories in the late nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, cotton held a primary place in European colonial agricultural policies throughout Africa (Isaacman and Roberts 1995: 1).
Everywhere cotton played a role in Europe's African colonies, programs to encourage its cultivation and export reverberated into an array of social, political, and economic structures. In his aptly titled history of cotton as global commodity, Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World, Riello describes this medium's complexities:
In many ways there is no commodity called cotton. The story gets even more complicated when we consider simultaneously the raw material, yarn, and the finished cloth and when we talk about both growing, production, and consumption all at once (2013: 13).
In the Soudan Français, each of the “life stages” in the processing of cotton created competition for control, expressed through French policies and pressure. Systems of land ownership and use, taxation and labor practices, gender relations, the landscape itself—cotton transformed these and other fundamental elements of life in the Soudan Français. And yet for all these transformations, despite French efforts to replace it, the strip loom remained the chief form of weaving for internal and regional markets in the Soudan Français.
This loom's persistence posed problems as well as opportunities for the French administration. Across the decades of France's colonial empire, one consistent motivation for the administration's policies was cited to shore up the public's support for the maintenance of empire: economic benefit. As Aldrich describes, this was a “straightforward and unquestioned [assumption] that colonies should serve France. They must return profits by providing useful raw materials, purchasing French goods, and attracting French investments” (1986: 91). Cotton was prominent among these useful raw materials, for which the vast Soudan Français was identified as a key source. As Roberts describes, at the dawn of the twentieth century, French merchants and administrators feared loss of access to cotton from the southern United States as the region grappled with the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction even as it suffered a massive boll weevil infestation. Cotton, they realized, might be sourced elsewhere: “This fear of cotton shortages also coincided with the realization that France had claimed vast areas in the interior of West Africa and that these areas were in search of a mission. Cotton was to be their mission” (Roberts 1995: 221). Cotton agriculture was the focus of much attention by French scientists and bureaucrats, leading to policies that aimed to improve fibers, increase production, streamline the path to cotton brokers, and encourage the export of most of the colony's harvest to France (Figs. 6–7). In short, much depended on ensuring that the Soudan Français lived up to its cotton potential.
Processed and woven cotton was also subject to competition in this French colonial system, for the administration aimed to provide France's textile manufacturers with a ready market for their goods, returning cotton to West Africa in the form of finished cloth from French textile mills, theoretically a perfect system in which France benefited from privileged access at both ends of the cotton life cycle (Roberts 1996: 81). As Boone notes, the French textile industry was exceptionally reliant on the colonies: “Of all major branches of French manufacturing, none developed a greater stake in colonial markets than the cotton textile industry” (1992: 34). And this same industry was of immense importance across Europe by the late eighteenth century (Beckert 2014: 55). Britain and France followed similar strategies in the race to gain access to cotton through their colonial possessions, then to export finished products into those same colonial markets. As Beckert notes of British exports to African and American markets: “By the end of the eighteenth century the share going abroad had expanded to about two-thirds. By mid-century 94% of all cotton cloth exports from Britain went there” (2014: 51).
The French dependence on markets in the empire followed a similar path—by 1936, one third of all exports were destined for the colonies (Marseille 1984: 44). Yet the efforts of French merchants and administrators did not achieve such success in the all-important cotton market in Soudan Français. Roberts cites a 1923 governmental report by a French agronomist who described the shallow penetration of French-produced textiles into the markets of the French Soudan, the result of the practicality and the adaptability of weavers and the tastes of their consumers. The agronomist, Etesse, stated:
Weavers are ubiquitous throughout West Africa. With their primitive yet easily transportable craft, they go from village to village … they make bands of cloth more durable than imported cloth. When imported cloth is amply and inexpensively available, then this industry is limited to ordinary clothing. Following the rise in prices for European cloth, however, the native is obliged to remedy the situation by fabricating cloth locally. The governor-general has reported that throughout AOF there has been a very active revival of handcraft textile production and an equally rapid abandonment of purchases in imported cloth (Roberts 1996: 193–94).
French merchants might gain market share only to lose it again if their prices increased, and they couldn't match the durability of strip-woven cloth even when their prices were competitive (Figs. 8–9).
This West African use of cotton posed a challenge to the colonial government even before it reached looms, for weavers in the Soudan Français competed with French merchants for raw cotton. As Roberts notes, the markets for strip-woven cotton enabled local weavers to compete with French brokers: “Because the handicraft textile industry of the Soudan fed a dynamic domestic and intracontinental market in West Africa, Soudanese cotton producers were able to withstand pressure from the colonial state to sell their cotton to the export sector” (1996: 13) (Fig. 9). Little wonder French administrators focused so much attention on this medium, which eluded their control yet was so crucial to their plans for the colonial economy.
THE COLONY BETWEEN WARS: IRRIGATION AND ASSOCIATION
In the 1930s, the French Soudan's weaving and cotton textiles gained heightened prominence in the exercise of French colonial power. This intensification reflects more than the continuation of economic policies that had for decades aimed to increase the yield and control the market for the region's cotton crop. A wider set of historical circumstances created a confluence of motivations, all of which led to cotton and its artisans. These included the imperative to garner benefits from the colonies increased in the aftermath of World War I and, beginning in 1932, of the Depression (Roberts 1996: 218). Along with economic pressure, our story of widening looms was shaped by the changing of the colonial mission, by tension surrounding the increasing agitation of West Africans and others who had served in the French army and yet found themselves resubjugated by their marginalization in the French empire, and by a growing social conservatism in France, all of which were themselves interrelated. The French interwar period was also distinguished by the brief interlude of a socialist national government during precisely the years of our textile-centered events: 1936–37. While few of these factors point directly to cotton, they produced a context in which cotton and its weavers could be valuable to French administrators, just as raw cotton was valuable as a commodity.
Economic hardship in France impacted colonies like Soudan Français through increased taxation and declines in the already limited investment in infrastructure, education, and other arenas (Manning 1988: 51). The drive to make the colony profitable led to a massive irrigation project in the inland Niger delta region, known as the Office du Niger. The Office, established in 1932, was the brainchild of French engineer Emile Bélime, who proposed a series of dams and flood zones to irrigate 1,850,000 hectares—approximately 7,000 square miles—for the production of cotton and rice as “part of a plan for imperial autarky” (Van Beusekom 2002: xxvi). Colonial Minister Sarraut was persuaded, declaring that the Niger Valley of the Soudan had the potential to match the famed fertility of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, with the abundance of their Nile and Euphrates rivers (Sarraut 1922: 172–73). The Office's bureaucrats were empowered and years of plans and policies ensued, yet Bélime's projections were never realized.
Along with economic and political motivations, we might look to broad cultural trends as factors in the French administration's attention to weaving. Conklin has described this period in terms of a retrenchment in “traditional” values, both in France and France d'Outre-Mer, in the face of postwar economic and social pressures from French women at home and from elites in the colonies, both demanding greater autonomy:
These same concerns with restoring domestic order reverberated overseas, as Dakar's [the AOF administrative seat] growing interest in respecting chiefs whose power was “traditional” and “familial” fully attests. In the interwar years, an intensification of racialized thinking and reassertion of neo-traditional values went hand in hand, at home and in the empire (Conklin 1997: 176).
The interwar promotion of traditional societies—or at least the versions of traditional societies that suited the French government's needs—leads us back to artisans, including weavers. In France during this period, a movement to recognize the value of artisanal skills led to legislation that aimed to recognize and protect these family-based businesses, which were deemed to be disappearing in the face of increased industrialization.5 Thus, artisanship was a domestic concern for French politicians and bureaucrats, readily transferred to colonial possessions.
A change in the articulation of France's mission as a colonial metropole also fueled attention to “native” weaving and textiles. For decades, the colonial administration's policy had endorsed the incorporation of colonial subjects into French society, a model that held French culture as the glorious destiny of all; the goal was “assimilation.” The 1920s saw the rise of a new, ostensibly more practical approach that endorsed the preservation of inherent cultural differences between colonizer and colonized (see Betts 2005). This conception—“association”—held that colonized populations could not be assimilated but instead should progress at their own pace. Rather than encouraging the adoption of French culture, the subjects of empire would maintain their “natural” (i.e., lower) level of civilization. With the emphasis now on preserving and enhancing local cultures, colonial policy no longer aimed to remake the AOF in its image but instead reified conceptions of the colonies as bounded by exotic, traditional practices. Artisans as a social category were particularly useful to French colonial officials as paradigms of both the value of traditional cultures and their positive transformation at the hands of French influence. Artisans and their work were also cited to demonstrate the administration's newfound esteem for local practices, a position that lent a benevolent veneer to the reassessment of West Africans' opportunities as a result of the turn away from assimilation. Through textiles and weavers, French policies and institutions could both celebrate and impose “improvements” on their colonial subjects.
Sarraut codified this new conception of colonial power in his 1922 book on the development of the colonies, asserting that the metropole must profit from overseas possessions, while the colonies would reap the rewards of French munificence. The association model was well suited to the discourse on cotton agriculture. For example, at a 1936 conference on colonization in the AOF, a presentation by the honorary secretary of the Association Cotonnière Coloniale6 leapt from France's need for colonial cotton to the many benefits this cotton would provide for the colonies:
Today as in the past, we have a strong economic and political motivation, for French industry and for national defense, to escape as much as possible foreign control for the procurement of a product as necessary as cotton. On the other hand, development of cotton sources in our overseas possessions offers native populations the benefits of an industrial system that is capable of … properly compensating the grower, and, as a result, making him rich (Lavit 1936: 153).
This emphasis on the benefit of colonial policy to Africans themselves reflects the political platform of the Popular Front government, elected in 1936, just in time to complete the planning and present the 1937 Exposition before the coalition that supported the government collapsed later that same year. Historians Chafer and Sackur observed that “the Popular Front is seen as marking the point when the contradictions inherent in colonialism clearly began to manifest themselves as intractable” (2002: 13). Marius Moutet, Minister of the Colonies, declared his support for the laboring classes in the colonies just as in France:
We, without sectarianism or partisan attitude, deny none of our republican or socialist convictions, and after thirty years of political and social action in favor of the working masses, especially colonial, will take our role of civilizer and emancipator seriously. Our constant preoccupation will be the material, physical and moral needs of the men living in our territories (Le Branchu 1937: 130).
Yet the socialist-led government's progressive, labor-oriented platform collided with practices in Overseas France, as exemplified by the continuation of cotton-fueled abuses at the government's Office du Niger. These abuses were vividly described in a report on the status of families in AOF that was commissioned by Marcel Jules de Coppet, the Popular Front's governor-general of AOF7 The report's author, Denise Savineau Moran, documents the lack of payment to farmers, the forced labor of entire families, the terrible conditions of the “Office du Niger villages,” and the abusive behavior of the Office's agents (Savineau 2007: 69–72).8 Yet the project continued, epitomizing the colonial aspirations of the Popular Front and previous French administrations, the frustration of plans unfulfilled, and the deleterious impact of French-directed cotton agriculture on communities in the region. Contradictory policies and images abound at the loom as in the field.
THE LOOM: TECHNOLOGIES AND TENSIONS
Bernhard Gardi has concisely described the fundamental function of all looms: “The route from raw material to finished textile is long, and it requires the manipulation of millions of meters of thread without tangling them” (2003: 14).9 The strip or horizontal loom offers an elegant solution to the challenge of separating and interlacing warps and wefts, using readily available materials to assemble a structure powered by the weaver's hands and feet (Fig. 10). The loom's key attributes are its horizontal orientation with the warp stretching out in front of the weaver, its far end wrapped around a rock heavy enough to hold the threads in tension; the heddles that the weaver operates, using his feet to open and close the shed (the space between the parted warp threads, through which the shuttle is passed); and most importantly, the width of the warp, which ranges from as narrow as half an inch to as wide as thirty inches (Kriger 2006: 70). Generally, strips are woven in widths of three to four inches, or eight to twelve inches (Picton 1992: 20) (Fig. 11). These strips are stitched together edge to edge to create a finished textile.
Strip looms are used in much of West Africa, from Senegal to Niger, Mauretania to Ghana, in each region producing cloth in a variety of styles. Weaving in West Africa was (and, nearly always, still is) the work of men. The narrow, horizontal looms are portable—weavers can roll up the warp and disassemble their looms at the end of the day—and the long strips of cotton cloth they produce shape the styles of textiles in all of the cultures where the technology has been used for centuries (Fig. 12). The clearest evidence for this long history has been found in burial caves that contain archaeological textiles, which both demonstrate the antiquity of the region's strip weaving and attest to the skill weavers long brought to the horizontal loom. In what is today the heartland of the Dogon ethnic group, in central Mali south of the bend of the Niger River, a Swiss archaeological team working in the 1960s and ‘70s excavated caves that had been used as burial sites in the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. Many of the textiles date to the first half of this period, produced by the population who inhabited the region before the Dogon, known as the Tellem. As Kriger notes: “Viewed as a whole, this rare trove of textiles demonstrates that weaving cotton on the narrow treadle loom was already well established and highly developed by the eleventh century in the upper Niger region” (2006: 77).
In his foundational book on African textiles, Roy Sieber noted the aesthetic impact of this strip composition:
Whereas careful measurement, precise calculations, and meticulous thread counts can create a scheme of fixed or repeated patterns, less planning may result in quite dramatic, random designs. Actually, the accidentals in such cloths are not unanticipated, but are allowed for if not calculated (1972: 181).
Indeed, John Picton speculates that the narrow format might have developed to create this desirable aesthetic effect:
It has often been noted, however, that the narrow-strip format, in which the strips are intended to be sewn together edge to edge, does encourage certain kinds of configurations of patterns. Perhaps, then, this format is partly motivated by its design potential (1992: 20–21).
For colonial officials in Bamako, Dakar, and Paris, the notion that this technology produced a desirable style would have seemed unorthodox if not nonsensical. When it appears in the French colonial archives of the Soudan Français, the strip loom is rarely addressed in neutral terms, for this technology was the focus of critique and the subject of policies. Allusions to the strip loom cast it as exemplary of the deficiencies of indigenous technologies and, in turn, of the need for interventions through the colonial administration's policies. More than the other media that represented the French Soudan's artistic production, these fabrics provoked critique by French administrators, educators, and other observers and the proposal of varied “solutions.” Many attributes of the loom and its operation fueled critique in French policy and commentary on the cultures of the Soudan Français, serving as “proof” of a host of disparaging, or at best condescending, characterizations. The work of weavers, along with that of other artisans, was cited in support of French claims about West Africans' lack of intellect, manual skill, creativity, morality, and work ethic.
As director of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais and an official representative of the AOF for the planning of the 1937 Exposition, Jean Le Gall's name appeared often in discussions and publications that addressed the administration's artisan-related policies. His litany of artisans' faults includes: lack of pride in their work; inability to innovate (“like all primitives, they readily acquire simple, rote skills”); underdeveloped aesthetic sense (“this indigenous aesthetic sense, embryonic as it is …”); lack of work ethic (“we constantly try to improve their taste for work well done”); and, at the end of this short article's inventory of judgments, Le Gall notes that the AOF's artisans have yet to develop the “moral dignity” of their French counterparts (Le Gall 1932: 172, 173, 177). Going further, in what might be considered a tour de force of bizarre colonial logic, Le Gall describes the skill of artisans as a mark of their lack of ability:
I have already shown, in an earlier study of Artisanship … that too much manual dexterity has often impeded the perfection of tools. The supple body, which bends easily, willingly takes the ground as a workbench, and his feet themselves hold the piece he works on (Le Gall 1937: 3).
Le Gall's reference to artisans' almost prehensile dexterity lends a disturbing undertone of racism to his description of a sculptor at work.
Other critiques focused on the tools and even the posture of artisans. In a report on governmental programs related to artisans, Bouyagui Fadiga dismissed West African looms and other tools as “too heavy and too crude.” He also declared that artisans would benefit through French-guided improvements in their posture:
The crouching pose [of the artisan] is tiring, causing irritation that leads to rushing and constant shifting of position that results in many deformities. They will adopt seated or standing poses, in front of a flat or inclined surface ….10
In sum, through the Maison des Artisans Soudanais and similar programs, colonial officials aspired to improve bodies, backs, minds, morals, clothing, tools, and countless other aspects of West African life.
Along with, and sometimes alongside, these critiques, the strip loom and its products also elicited a second type of response among French commentators. Rather than disparaging, the reactions of these bureaucrats, journalists, scholars, and others who encountered the loom might be characterized as sentimental with a tinge of rebuke. Here, textiles, often in their manifestations as clothing, were the objects of anticipatory nostalgia for the disappearing cultural practices that they expected to be replaced by inferior goods, imported products, and slavish imitation of Western styles. I cite just two among the many such assessments that populate the colonial archive:
The first is from the proceedings of the Congrès de l Évolution Culturelle des Peuples Coloniaux [Congress on the Cultural Evolution of Colonized Peoples], an academic conference that was part of the 1937 Exposition's programming. Charles Béart, a teacher at French colonial schools in Côte d'Ivoire and later at the École William Ponty in Senegal, gave a presentation on the “native aesthetic.” Bemoaning the degeneration of indigenous artisans' skills and aesthetic sensibilities, which could not withstand the temptations of Western products and desires, Béart cited sculpture as well as textile arts to describe the decline and the vulnerability of artisanship:
Artisans working for “novelty” make “anything that sells.” For example, a scatological figurine that reflects a custom where it was made is imitated by the hundreds in distant regions by sculptors who first encountered the style through an administrator; the Peuhls [Fulani] embroider styles from Galeries Lafayette11 for white women (Béart 1938: 111).
Erotic figurines and Grands Magasins: artisans had surely lost their way in the estimation of this French official.
A year later, an article in the newspaper Annales Coloniales used the textile arts of the Soudan Français to exemplify the fragility of artisanal traditions in the face of the irresistible appeal of Western tastes and styles:
[In] the decoration of beautiful dyed fabrics, which remain among the most distinctive and delectable [savoureux] of the region's arts—there can be no question of any interference by the colonizers without an immediate and complete annihilation of these fragile techniques. This so true that it takes only one European who commissions for his own use one of these fabrics decorated by women of the French Soudan uniquely, at least in principle, for their own use, with the distinctive style and care one applies to a detail of personal adornment, for these fabrics' striking artistic character to disappear completely (Lem 1938: 3).
Thus, a single textile commissioned by a colonial official, a visitor, a merchant—anyone beyond the local market—could wreak havoc on the fragile economy of an entire genre of “native” material culture; these local artisans are imagined to be ready to discard their longstanding practices when a single European client suggests a new style or provides a new market. Strip looms and other local practices were flawed, their practitioners weak in the face of Western influences.
TWO LOOMS: ASSOCIATION THROUGH EVOLUTION?
Our photographs of two sets of weavers were taken in 1937, in Paris and in Bamako (Figs. 1–2). While they depict West African weavers at work, textile production is not the actual subject of these images. Instead, they illustrate and promote the concept of association. The colonial administration presented weaving as an exemplary arena for colonial subjects to evolve with French guidance, while maintaining the distinctions—and the hierarchy—of metropole and colony. The two styles of looms, one typical of the Soudan Français and surrounding regions, and the other provided by the French administration, might be viewed as a summation of the administration's aims in this interwar period: The traditional form is preserved, yet a more “effective” alternative is on offer as well, presumably to be taken up and adapted to local tastes. Thus, in the conception of colonial officials, the conditions are provided for evolution, not transformation. As I will demonstrate, a close look at the photographs reveals more than the administrators and their photographers likely intended.
The Maison des Artisans Soudanais (Figs. 12), like the Office du Niger, was founded in 1932; these prominent projects aimed to control the French Soudan's cotton at two stages, growing and weaving. Despite the attention this institution would garner, such as its representation at the 1937 Exposition, the student body was small: A 1936 overview of education in AOF noted that the Maison's enrollment that year consisted of twelve artisans and twenty apprentices (Assomption and Bernadou 1936: 44–46). It was the first institution of its kind in French West Africa, paving the way for several others, all reflecting the turn from assimilation to association in the colonial administration's educational policies. The summation by the 1937 Exposition's High Commissioner for Overseas France of the role of crafts to French colonial policy expresses this evolutionary model:
Artisanal production permits us to maintain and develop in our subjects and those under our protection a labor-intensive activity that suits their mentality and their traditions, while progressively benefiting them with the advantages that our industrial civilization can bring them (Géraud 1937).
Jean Le Gall, founding director of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais, was more explicit in characterizing the aim of his institution in evolutionary terms. In a 1932 article introducing the Maison, Le Gall described his mission to provide
the means that seems to us to best permit them [artisans] to not only produce objects comparable to those that they made in past eras, but also that would enable them to continue to evolve in a very personal sense, developing the taste for work and certain moral habits that give our action, beyond its purely professional role, educational value (1932: 175; emphasis mine).
As a description of the presentation of the AOF's artisans at the 1937 Exposition indicates, evolutionary models were embedded here as well: “All the artisans were grouped together along the length of the gallery where we had the illusion of watching them evolve in their respective villages.”12 French observers, administrators, and scholars could apply the trope of evolution to particularly satisfying effect in the case of textiles. According to the assessment of those who styled themselves experts in this subject, literal growth—in the form of a widened warp—was the evolutionary destiny of the inexplicably narrow strip loom.
Textiles were at the core of the institution's mission. Indeed, Jean Le Gall made the strip loom—and its replacement—central to the school's aims, as described by a report on the participation of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais in the Soudan Français pavilion at the 1937 Exposition. Le Gall's attention to weaving was highlighted as exemplary of the administration's successes in the improvement of artisanal professions in the AOF:
The effort [of the Maison] first and foremost concerns the weaver whose technique has been improved through the creation of a new loom, very different from the loom used by native weavers. We have also assessed the quality of fabrics and created new styles that conform to established tastes or dictated by native consumers, because even in Soudan, there are changing fashions.13
The new loom, a large, treadle-driven floor loom, appears in our photographs of the Maison in Bamako and the Soudan Français display in Paris (Figs. 2–3). This new technology ostensibly produced textiles that appealed to local taste; the intention of this intervention was to enhance productivity while maintaining the characteristic styles that were deemed traditional (as determined by the assessment of French officials).
While widening the loom and “improving” other artisanal pursuits was the explicit purpose of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais, its potential impact was broader. The Maison provided hands-on training in skills that already existed in West African communities, including weaving, embroidery, dyeing, jewelry, metalsmithing, and leatherwork, but proposed to hone them with French expertise. The logic of the association model of colonial education held that not only would the Maison and similar institutions provide the practical knowledge that was supposedly suited to the needs and the capabilities of students, but also that education beyond these needs could have deleterious outcomes. These latter might include social dislocation for individuals as well as economic impacts for the entire colony—serious threats that were ostensibly alleviated by institutions like the Maison.
A 1938 article in Les Annales Coloniales makes an indirect but clear reference to one deleterious outcome of French-style education at elite schools, which had produced some of the leaders of the growing movement for self-determination, an outcome to be avoided by artisanal education: “We're trying to replace a theoretical style of teaching, quite ineffective and generally resulting in the creation of an entire category of inferior and disconnected [déracinés] natives, with no benefit to anyone” (Lem 1938: 1). The same year, a short article on the training of artisans in AOF in the journal Revue des Questions Coloniales et Maritimes connected the “overeducation” of colonial subjects with the need for workers in the colony:
We have criticized and we still sometimes continue to criticize the French colonial administration for its tendency to want to give the natives, in our overseas possessions, a form of education that they, especially those in the territories with particularly primitive [peu évoluées] populations, are ill suited to receive. … it would be disastrous … to deprive agriculture and manual labor of the strong arms and skilled hands in those areas that have less need of scholars and literate people than of peasants, workers, and artisans (Legrand 1938: 41).
The Maison des Artisans Soudanais offered administrators in the Soudan Français a means of evading this supposed danger, providing the skills deemed necessary: strong arms rather than deep thinkers.
Such idealization—and reductivism—of the artisans as manual rather than cerebral leads us to a fascinating and ultimately unrealized element of French colonial governance in the region during the interwar period: the identification of the artisan class as potential intermediaries who might implement the administration's policies, serving as a conduit to the wider population. Albert Charton, inspector general for education in AOF, used his presentation at a 1931 conference of colonial officials and academics to assert that artisans could be in the vanguard of indigenous support for French governance. Bemoaning the lack of indigenous representatives of French interests in the Soudan, he declared: “We need, in order to make a rapid transformation, indigenous classes who have absorbed the European system. Artisans and manual workers, trained by us, are at present the auxiliaries of our economic penetration.”14 The same year, Albert Sarraut—already familiar to us as a former minister of the colonies—declared that rural artisans were “an excellent source of recruitment for the indigenous elite.”15 In this way, the Maison could serve French interests beyond its well-made textiles and leatherwork.
Almost immediately after its establishment, glowing assessments of the success of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais began to appear in administrative reports and in the French press. In its first decade the institution was touted as a model of French adaptation to both the purported capabilities of the colonial subjects and the needs of empire. In 1932, a teacher named Bouyagui Fadiga submitted a report entitled Education de l'Artisanat Indigène to the Conseil Superieur de l'Enseignement. Written the very year the Maison des Artisans Soudanais was founded, Fadiga enthusiastically declared that the school had “already proven a marvelous instrument of progress in our AOF.”16 Another positive assessment of the Maison des Artisans came from higher in the French administrative system. In 1935, Albert Charton, inspector general of education for the colony (both of whom we have encountered already, as the 1937 Exposition's official representative for the colonial empire), reported to the governor general on the success of the Maison des Artisan and the many institutions that it inspired:
The Maison des Artisans Soudanais has opened and has seen vibrant success. The Maison de KINDIA [in Guinea] is completed. The “Atelier Africain” in Dakar will be inaugurated soon. We are studying plans for Maisons des Métiers in Abidjan and Niamey.17
In 1936, the accolades came from still loftier heights: the governor general of AOF, Jules Brévié, released a statement celebrating his administration's educational successes in which he declared that “artisanal schools are being created in every colony, imitating the ‘Maison des Artisans' in Bamako, simultaneously an atelier for applied arts and a conservatory for indigenous professions that must be preserved and restored” (“Nos Echos” 1936).
In 1937, the year of the Exposition in Paris, French photographer Pierre Verger (later renowned for his work in Brazil) visited the French Soudan under the auspices of a governmental press agency.18 He took pictures in numerous cities and towns, and in Bamako he photographed weavers at the Maison des Artisans Soudanais (Figs. 1–2, 8). As the images attest, the school's administrators had implemented their plans for wider, ostensibly more practical and superior looms, which were part of the weaving curriculum along with the strip looms that were still in use. The photographs encapsulate the vast distance between these technologies; differences that can be read as social as much as technological.
The young students working the pedals of the strip looms are wearing uniforms that appear to be a fascinating hybrid of French workman's attire and French ideas about West African dress: coveralls, sailor-striped simple t-shirts, along with a fez (Fig. 1). This latter garment was the icon of the tirailleur Senegalais, the West African soldier who fought bravely and cheerfully for “his” nation during World War I.19 Their looms are almost difficult to discern, made of a slight structure of branches, their gently modulating forms almost like a forest of striplings. Hanging from diaphanous threads are the heddles, while the warp projects in front of the weavers, white threads viewed on edge. These young male students, seated by a wall that likely provided shade, share each other's company though fully absorbed in the movement of bare feet operating heddles in coordination with shuttle-bearing hands.
In the other photograph, a mammoth imported loom made of lumbered wood in squared beams sits in the middle of an empty space—perhaps the courtyard of the Maisons des Artisans Soudanais (Fig. 2). Its multiplicity of parts includes levers and suspended rods, a spool-like wheel, pulleys, and flat expanses of a broad warp. At the far side of this machinery, nearly hidden behind the rods and levers, is the weaver, apparently standing at his task. Verger's photograph conveys this imported loom's cultural impact, distinct from that of the strip loom. Looms of this size isolate the weaver, placing him in a position subordinate to the hulking machine. While we lack an explanation for the difference in age between these sets of weavers, it is difficult to imagine a young student taking on the operation of a loom that would so dwarf them physically.
Our other image of paired looms was taken at the 1937 Exposition, where the replacement of the strip loom was presented as one of the administration's achievements (Fig. 3). The Exposition's theme (“Art and Techniques in Modern Life”) gave practical arts such as weaving a prominent place, whether in the colonial section or at the various French regional pavilions. Weavers and other textile artists were popular elements of the colonial pavilions. A total of forty-five “natives” from French West Africa participated in the 1937 Exposition, a number that included a disproportionate representation of textile skills, including two groups of weavers as well as embroiderers and dyers.20
The decision to feature what was, from the French perspective, the “aspirational” loom as well as the actual loom, and to reproduce a photograph of the display in a prominent souvenir publication, reveal this loom-related effort's perceived importance to the administration's colonial narrative. Yet, this photograph, too, communicates more than its creators intended. The Soudan Français display is set in a room with a curved back wall, punctuated with arches, patterned masonry, and masks. A painted landscape within each archway creates a setting (likely a representation of Bamako from the surrounding hills of Kouluba, site of the colonial administration), with the Niger River wending in the distance. Two looms dominate the space. The strip loom is on the left, with the weaver seated in profile, his narrow warp extending to the right, ending behind the second loom. While his hands are occupied with the shuttle and beater, he appears to turn his face outward, perhaps engaging with those around him. Seated cross-legged in front of him, an embroiderer and a second artisan (perhaps a leatherworker) ply their trades, creating a nexus of mediums and techniques. Behind the weaver, a selection of his products hangs from the top of the structure, all styles of cotton blankets one might find produced today in Mopti and surrounding areas—styles with long histories, that have been adapted to changing materials and tastes (Gardi 2009: 70).21
On the opposite side of the image, a weaver sits at an imported, wide-warped loom. While the loom is difficult to discern, only partially visible, it may be similar to the massive form photographed by Verger in Bamako. This weaver is apparently alone, his back to the viewer, his head bowed to his work. The precariously tall stool on which he is balanced symbolizes its awkward fit—even in the artificial milieu of the Exposition, this loom is not integrated into its surroundings, unlike the strip loom, which seems to fit within the arch behind it and places the weaver scarcely above the height of his companions on the floor in front of him.
The products of the second loom are not on display, but we may find a clue as to their style in a photograph published in the May 1937 issue of Le Monde Colonial Illustré, a periodical aimed at the general public, featuring news and feature stories about the colonies. In an article celebrating a tour of AOF by Minister of the Colonies Marius Moutet earlier that year, a small photograph documents his visit to the Maison des Artisans Soudanais (Fig. 14). Perhaps unsurprising in light of the administration's focus on textiles and weavers, the photograph centers on a loom viewed in profile. This loom, too, is difficult to discern; it appears to be a widened version of a strip loom, its warp wrapped around a hexagonal spool rather than stretched out in front of the weaver, and the weaver seems to be seated on a benchlike construction. Somewhat puzzlingly, women seated in front of and behind the weaver seem to be working on vertical looms—a technology exclusive to women in Nigeria and neighboring countries—yet this was (and is) not a technology used in any part of the Soudan Français.
Keeping our focus on the horizontal-style loom, it appears that fabrics hanging on the wall behind the weaver may be the products of this widened loom. These may be the only evidence of the textiles-that-were-not-woven, my point of embarkation. They are long, yet they do not appear to have been made in strips. The length would preclude their use as wrappers or blankets, the most typical products made of strip-woven cloth. And the plaid patterns featured on several of the cloths are not at all typical of the region's textiles. Was this the style encouraged by the administrators of the Maison des Artisans Soudanais? If it was, we can better understand the futility of the administration's efforts, for these forms would scarcely lend themselves to local tastes and tasks.
SEEING THROUGH THE STRIP LOOM
The strip loom might be viewed as a colonial conundrum, a focal point that exposes the limits of imagination imposed by the structures of colonial empire. As we have seen, the economic exigencies of cotton and colonialism drove policies, repressed people, and reshaped landscapes. The strip loom demonstrates that this system also restricted the view of its practitioners, leaving officials blinded to the aesthetics, the practicality, and the possibilities of a distinctively West African technology. This loom incited the commitment of bureaucratic, promotional, and financial resources to a futile effort—to cloth that would never be woven.
I close with one final example of the power of the strip loom to obscure the vision of even the most expert participants in the interwar French colonial structure. In 1927, Charles Monteil, colonial official and author of several studies on the cultures and histories of West Africa, published a monograph on cotton in AOF The book, Le Coton Chez les Noirs, was an important work on an important subject for colonial administrators. Richard Roberts identified the work as “the major sociohistorical study of cotton in French West Africa during the colonial period” (1996: 51). Much of the book consists of Monteil's dispassionate observations of cotton varietals, agricultural practices, and details regarding the processing of cotton including the use of the strip loom. He demonstrates uncommon insights through his fieldwork as well as thorough research into early Arabic chronicles of the region, as evidenced by his accurate assessment of the loom's antiquity:
[Cloth] is woven in the form of a band of variable length that is not more than twenty centimeters wide, and sometimes as narrow as one or two centimeters. The strip is ordinarily ten to fifteen centimeters wide in raw cotton; the production and trade in this cloth existed in the eleventh century just like today (Monteil 1927: 59).
And yet, on the same page, following detailed descriptions of the strip loom's operation, Monteil takes an incongruous turn, declaring of the technology he has so carefully documented:
This persistence in making a textile that is so apparently inconvenient, and in spite of knowledge of fabrics made by other means, is an example of the indigenous culture's resistance to innovations that would revolutionize their practices; while the use of this band, to make the most diverse and complex garments, affirms the flexibility of the native to adapt his own means to the imitation of foreign innovations (Monteil 1927: 59).
Monteil perceived the loom's operation, its long history, and its adaptability to changing styles (not mere imitation, but innovation). Yet his comprehension was bounded by the dimensions of the loom's narrow warp.
Senate presentation by Albert Sarraut, Annales du Sénat, 2/27/20 (Lemaire 2003:138).
It may also be referred to as a horizontal loom, referring to the orientation of its warp, or as a double-heddle loom, referring to the use of two heddles, each of which is attached to a different set of warp threads (to alternating threads, for example) (Picton and Mack 1979: 50).
Alibert, Marcel. 1938. “Rapport de Tourneé d'Étude dans la Vallée du Sénégal du 10 au 25 mai 1938,” dossier 349 3D, Art et Artisanat Indigéne de l'AOF, Les Archives Nationales du Sénégal, Dakar, 6. Bouna-Kane was the son of Abdou Salam-Kane, the French-appointed chief of the Damga District.
While the distinctions between art and craft/artist and artisan are historically and culturally specific—a subject I aim to explore in a future publication—I note here that the terms “artisan” and “artisanat” had particular salience in French reception of West African material culture. As Adamson (2013: 140) has noted: “Craft is readily presumed to be direct, forthright, honest, authentic, undisguised, organic, integrated. These are all positive terms, of course, but when seen in the light of early modern discourse about artisans both at home and abroad, we can see that these associations have their origin in an ugly discourse of asymmetrical power relations of class and imperialism.”
See, for example, Zdatny (1990: 13–26) on the 1922 establishment of the Confédération Générale de l'Artisanat Français.
The Association was a government-affiliated organization that promoted cotton in France's colonies.
In her discussion of this report, Lydon summarizes Savineau's description of conditions in the Office du Niger's fields as “exploitation on a massive scale reminiscent of slavery” (1997: 572).
Savineau's documentation of the Office du Niger includes condemnation of the lack of any benefit to farmers, the forced labor of entire families, the terrible conditions of the “Office du Niger villages,” and the abusive behavior of the Office's agents.
“Le parcours entre la matière première et le textile terminé est long, et il faut apprendre à manipuler les milliers de mètres de fil sans les embrouiller.”
Fadiga, Bouyagui. 1932. “Education de l'Artisanat Indigène,” Conseil Superieur de l'Enseignement. Archives Nationales du Senegal, Dossier 349 (31), 3.,” 6.
Galeries Lafayette was, and still is, a major French department store.
Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France, “Exposition 1937: l'Afrique Occidentale Française” carton 628, dossier 1077: 2.
Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France, “Exposition 1937: l'Afrique Occidentale Française” carton 628, dossier 1077: 13.
Charton, Albert. 1931. “L'Artisanat Indigéne en A.O.F,” report for Congrés de la Societé Indigéne. Archives Nationals du Senegal Série O 349 (31): 6–7.
Congrès International et Intercolonial de la Société Indigéne de Paris (5–10 oct 1931): 63. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5790596s
Fadiga, Bouyagui. 1932. “Education de l'Artisanat Indigène,” Conseil Superieur de l'Enseignement, Sept 25, 1932. Archives Nationales du Senegal, Dossier 349 (31), 3. Fadiga was immortalized in a famous work of West African literature. Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ's first autobiographical novel, Amkoullel, L'Enfant Peul (published in 1991), recounts his youth in the Soudan Français. Fadiga, who is from the Soudan Français, was one of Bâ's secondary school teachers. He describes Fadiga as having “intellectual baggage” caused by his complete identification with French culture (Sankara 2011: 387).
Albert Charton, Report on Artisanat Indigène, Conseil Supérieur de l'Enseignement, 1935. Archives Nationales du Sénégal, #
The Service Intercolonial d'Information et de Documentation.
For more on the symbolic power of the tirailleurs in the French imaginary of West Africa, see Deroo and Champeaux 2006.
“Liste par professions des indigènes dont la venue en France sera demandée au Gouverneur Général,” Memorandum concerning the Section Artisanale, 1/30/37. Document C 613 D921, Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence.
As part of his discussion of the long history of weaving in Mali, Gardi (2009) notes that weavers innovated dramatically in the mid-twentieth century, as cotton thread in new colors became available, and with independence in 1960 when the government began to promote weaving and other arts as sources of national pride.