African Women and Visual Culture


African Women and Visual Culture

According to Patrick R. McNaughton, the use of shirts (i.e., the Batakari) by warrior leaders probably originated in the Muslim areas of northern Ghana, where the Batakari was collected. They are adorned with small leather type charms sown around tightly folded papers containing written Islamic phrases or geometric diagrams: the charms are believed to have the power to protect the wearer from harm. Similarly decorated tunics are worn by hunters in Mall to the north.


The use by hunters is probably an older custom, and it may explain the addition of animal elements such as the horns bound in leather and the use of civet cat skin to cover some of the charms. Animal materials add the powers of the bush and its dangerous and stealthy animal spirits to the protective powers of the Islamic charms. The Batakari is fashioned of indigo-dyed, striped, men’s-weave cloth made of narrow strips sewn together.

While Patrick R. McNaughton offers us an important view on the shirts that Mande hunters wear, it also offers important insight on the collective culture, religion, as well as hunters’ habits and lifestyles. While the Mall Empire is spoken of (Thirteenth Century AD) in connection to the Mande Empire and civilization, so is the area of northern Ghana which was largely Muslim. As to the stages of Islam’s advance in the empire of Ghana, the truth about when Islam first came to Ghana, and what form it took there is hard to come by.

What evidence there is patchy and often contradictory. Unfortunately, much the same has to do with traditional African garb vis-à-vis warriors and hunters. The Batakari shirt is probably the best example that we have come across, and it is a tunic like a shirt which covers virtually all of the body.

The Sahara and the west and central Sudan from the 17th Century. By that date, it is known that an Islamic presence was definitely established in Ghana. The sources from which these fragments of information come are the writings of Arabic authors from the 28th Century on. A number of them were mentioned earlier but they should not be regarded as absolute authorities. They were the journalists and travel/writers of their day and they recorded information and opinions that they picked up from travellers and traders. This entire period and area are also somewhat vague. In considering Islam and Ghana, as well as tribes such as the Mande, the first fact that comes to mind is that Ghana was the centre of the gold trade. It was therefore certainly in touch with such Ibadi centres as Tahert and Namakkal.

As mentioned, Tadmakkat, which was especially closely associated with Ghana, was probably a centre for Ibadi traders. It is therefore also probable that Ibadi ideas reached Ghana from Tadmakkat and began to circulate in the Ghanaian Empire. Ghana, however, was in touch with other North African and Saharan centres that were no Ibadi. Thus there is every reason to suppose that the Sunni, Maliki form of Islam, as it was being argued out by the earnest and learned Ulami of Qayrawan reached Ghana, if not at the same time as the Ibadiyya at least soon as the zealous Ibn Yasin began to preach it to his wayward Sanhaja.

What can be said with confidence with that a Sunni Shaykh had converted the King of Malay, Mali, to Islam before 460-1067, because the well-informed 11-century writer, Al-Bakri said so. Mali was then part of the empire of Ghana. It would be remarkable if the Shaykh converted no more than just the king so it is a reasonable conclusion that both the Ibadiyya and the Maliki madhab were in the air of the Ghana empire before 460-1067, although it is not possible to say precisely how long before. In order to trace the African war or hunter clothing or shirts, one must be able to trace the tribes, and the Muslim influence in Ghana. At this point, we see the advent of Mande successor states.


After the Mali Empire had crumbled away, the region west of the Niger suffered from a state of complete anarchy until it was occupied by the French. When the Moroccans destroyed the Songhay state, all the northern Soninke states became independent. Three rival descendants of the Keita line ruled the central Mande region (Manding, Karadugu, and Bendugu), but its complete disintegration was not arrested and the country became filled with hundreds of village states of which the descendants of Sun Data ruled only one. Like the Bantu, the Mande has long been an expansive civilization.

The Great Mall empire, for example, was founded in the Thirteen Century A.D. by the Marinke (Malinke), a core ethnic group in Mande civilization. The Balmana (Bambara), another core group, established in the early Seventeenth Century, the large and powerful states of Kaarta and Segon. Just before colonization, the Dyula, another core group, treated quite a large empire that was growing rapidly when the French finally subjugated it and began to establish an empire of their own.

During the course of all this empire building, the Mande systematically enlarged the territory they controlled. The Mali empire sent colonists to settle the Gambia River basin, and thus a series of small kingdoms were established – – initially owing allegiance to old Mali but gradually establishing their own autonomy. These states controlled much of the trade that came to the coast, and they remained politically and economically powerful until the middle 1800s (Quinn, 1972: 9-11). To the south and east, the Mali empire sent groups of traders and blacksmiths to tighten their grip on the gold trade and refine the technologies used to amass that precious material.

Today large groups of Mande Dyula, Ligbi and Numu (blacksmiths) and prominent components of the ethnic complexion of western Ghana and the Bondoukou region of Ivory Coast. In a somewhat less systematic fashion, the Mande have been very influential south of their savanna homelands, which are now modern Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Lybia. When the Mali empire began to fall, for example, many Maninka infiltrated the lands to the south displacing indigenous populations and establishing their own political order. They settled first in Guinea, but then, apparently, under the leadership of a clan segment bearing the last name Mara, they spread into northern Sierra Leone.

These people are now known as the Kuranko, and they represent but a single instance of the kind of aggressive enterprise for which the Mande have become very well known. The hunters are an anomaly, and they generate high levels of ambivalence in Mande civilization. The clothes they wear, most notably their shirts and hats, encode in no uncertain terms the anomaly hunters represent and the ambivalence that they generate.

The shirts (Donson dfokiw) in fact are symbols with a complex of references, which ultimately include very nearly every aspect of the hunters’ abilities and their roles in traditional society. They are used to proclaim themselves, this is a civilization where clothes reveal a great deal about their wearers. We can use these hunters’ clothes as focal points for understanding hunters, and in the process begin to see the clothes as the Mande themselves see them.

There is great emphasis on African clothing. Great hunters and warriors such as the Zulu reflect this in that the work of Tribe Zulu is clear and clean cut. It is that of inspiring our race with pride in itself and with the determination of going ahead in the creation of those ideas that will lift them to their unprejudiced company of races and nations. Our clothing is made of highest quality materials, built for durability and strength – – the same qualities that our people (Africans) have possessed and still possess today. The Zulu clothing collection is for the strong at heart. The brothers and sisters who know no quit, who drive on despite the odds, reflect this in the making of their African garb.

African women have been also strongly influential in the development and invention of African garb, as previously mentioned, very little in the literature provides thorough analysis of African warrior shirts and garb for that matter, although this author has gathered that what we refer to as African warrior or hunter shirts, would more likely be one piece of clothing that covered the rest of the body, such as the Batakari.

The background/culture of Africa and its many tribes can be seen in a contemporary dress today. Most pre-colonial African sightings were based on oral cultures, and in many areas, castes of oral historians, known in some western areas as griots, evolved who preserved traditions through prodigious recitations, often lasting up to 60 hours. Sundiata, an epic of old Mali, recited by the Griot Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate and written by D.T. Niane, details the life of Sundiata, the great emperor of Mali.

Today, filmmaker Dani Kouyate, a member of the Griot family, considers himself to fulfilling his mission through the medium of film. His full-length video, Keita, is an imaginative, double narrative “coming of age” story. The frame narrative involves an upper middle class, westernized nuclear family, the Keitas, living in the capital city, while the interior narrative centres on the Thirteenth Century epic of their famous ancestor, Sundiata Keita, credited with having established the famous ancient empire of Mali.

Keita affords viewers the opportunity to observe images of women in both rural and urban settings. The ancient epic is situated in the pre-Islamic. So we observe Sundiata’s mother and grandmother’s spiritual powers based on the power of the ancestral spiritual world or Nyama. The opportunity to make such an observation is important because, during colonization, Africa was gendered and essentialized as “mother” Africa in much the same way as “the Orient,” as described by Edward Said.

As Said points out, the main aspect for the European visitor was the representation of the Orient, not its reality. Similarly, in Joseph Conrad’s novel about central Africa, The Heart of Darkness, the protagonist’s first description of the Congo River likens it to an aged African woman, worn out from too many years of childbearing. Such a feminizing, passive representation lends itself to the rationalization that the African continent was ready and waiting for a European “mission civilatrice,” and further reinforces contemporary misapprehensions about African women’s hyper victimization.


In Keita, the traditional women’s power is contrasted with the very different power wielded by Mrs Keita, the westernized mother in the family, who straightens her hair and for the most part, wears western clothes. The humble but distinguished Bard has been called by an ancestral spirit to go and teach Mabo about his African origins, which date back to Sundiata Keita’s famous Thirteenth Century empire of Mali. The elder man’s oral recitation and the accompanying cutaways formed the core of the second interwoven story. The author speaks of the identity of the tribe as influenced by women who made the clothing in terms of their own sense of visuality within the clothing itself. This, I believe, is seen amongst many hunter and warrior groups throughout Africa, including the Mande.



Gant-Britton, Lisbeth. “African Women and Visual Culture: A Sample Syllabus,” Contemporary Women’s Issues Database, September 1, 1995


Hiskett, Mervyn. The Development of Islam in West Africa. Longman Publishers, London and New York, 1984


Trimingham, Spencer J. A History of Islam in West Africa. Oxford University Press, 1962


McNaughton, Patrick R. The Shirts That Mande Hunters Wear. African Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, California, 1982


A History of Art in Africa, Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, Micheal D. Harris.  Harry N. Abrams, INC. Publishers. Copyright 2001. Pg 33


Hatumere: Islamic design in West Africa.  Labelle Prussin. University of California Press. Copyright 1986.


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