Cloth as archive: contemporary Dioula weaving in northern Côte d’Ivoire

May 4, 2022

Emma C. Wingfield is a Doctoral Candidate in the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and one of three students awarded funding through The Karun Thakar Scholarship Award in 2021. Below is a short introduction to her research in progress.

Blanket, Dampe or Damiye, hand-spun cotton. Soninke or Bamana People, Mali, mid-20th century, 188 × 106cm. Karun Thakar Collection

Contemporary handwoven cloth from Côte d’Ivoire is the product of centuries of collaborative processes of production and design in conversation with one another. The methodological and theoretical framework for my research emulates this process, engaging with the fabric’s transformative quality to traverse borders, both geographically and temporally, and its capacity for circular reinvention as central to its innovation. By exploring the Indigenous histories, traditional knowledges, and creative ingenuity of those who make the cloth, my research addresses how contemporary influences affect the knowledge production, and how shifting styles and pattern of cloth forms developed throughout the twenty-first century. This research is interdisciplinary in nature and spans design, anthropology, archaeology, cultural economics, and material culture studies. I am particularly interested in how theoretical perspectives drawn from these disciplines engages with issues of authenticity and appropriation, and challenges production and motif development of handwoven cloth as it moves from its rural origins into the global marketplace and, finally, into contemporary interior spaces.

Across multiple global narratives, textiles have assumed a longevity that fosters diverse discussions from tradition to modernity, authenticity versus appropriation, art versus craft, and from design to commerce. Textiles occupy a space of constant exchange. Cloth comes into contact with people and spaces that continuously inform its production and as a result produce multiple narratives. Cloth becomes an archive in and of itself, as it holds subtle changes in weaving design and artistry. Much of the previous research on West African textiles focuses on discussions of collective cloth histories, variances, and understandings of the materials and technologies used in their creation. This wide focus often ignores the complexity and intersectionality of individual handwoven industries. In Côte d’Ivoire, the research on handwoven industries abruptly stops at the turn of the twenty-first century. For this reason, this research considers handwoven cloth produced in the village of Waraniéné from the immediate post-Independence period in the 1970s to now. 

Constructing a framework rooted in cloth as archive offers an opportunity to consider a more fluid theoretical paradigm of representation to explore Dioula handwoven textile production and design. Contemporary handwoven cloth functions both as an art form and a commodity depending on where it was made and who it is being bought by. Fabrics from the global South are often associated with the tourist industry and as a result dismissed across much of the academic discourse. Additionally, textiles as a craft industry are often viewed as tradition-bound and immutable. However, we can learn much more about the recent history of handwoven cloth and how pattern develops by looking at recent motif archives and by situating contemporary weaver’s voices as the experts. We can also challenge how we look at the post-colonial legacy of contemporary craft industries as beholden to the tourist industry and thus void of its own agency. Through the act of weaving as an awareness of exchanges, this research investigates those exchanges in order to understand how cloth itself informs its own development, replication, innovation and application in global commercial and domestic spaces. My research is situated at this point between art, design, craft and commerce.

Waraniéné is a rural weaving village in northern Côte d’Ivoire, known as Les Village des Tisserands. The Dioula people migrated to this part of northern Côte d’Ivoire and settled at Waraniéné in the early eighteenth century. They brought their weaving and dyeing trade with them. The Dioula were a nomadic population, traveling across wide swaths of western Africa weaving and trading textiles along with other commodities. Today, the Dioula live in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. This history of traveling trade and movement to different locales while producing cloth across cultural boundaries led to a series of mutual influences between cloth industries that can still be seen today. For example, similar motifs can be found across Dioula, Baulé, Guro, Ewe and Bogolan cloth to name a few.

Motif variation and change is dependent on access to an archive of older textiles from which to consider how new motifs and patterns shift. However, many contemporary weavers do not have access to older patterns. Textile collections such as the Karun Thakar Collection are invaluable resources. The collection’s Dampe or Damiye Blanket (see first image above) from the mid twentieth century is of particular interest because this motif is still woven by weavers at Waraniéné. They call the pattern Damier (see image below) and there are multiple contemporary iterations of this motif – some incorporating different colours and small supplemental weft float motifs.

Blanket, motif Damier, handwoven cotton. Dioula weaver, Waraniéné, Côte d’Ivoire, 2020. Photographed by Emma C. Wingfield

One of the dominant patterns in my research is motif Artisanal, created in the 1970s by master weaver Coulibaly Kognoumaba. This pattern is similar to the Damier because it plays with the checkerboard design. What sets this particular pattern apart is the distinct use of weft float motifs to create the design. The motifs are all iterations of the foundational four motif elements (les motifs de base) that all weavers must master. From there, a weaver can produce any pattern as they wish. The motifs are loaded through a series of mathematical calculations, and knowledge held within the mind of the weaver.

Blanket, motif Artisanal, handwoven cotton. Dioula weaver, Waraniéné, Côte d’Ivoire, 2018. Photographed by Emma C. Wingfield

Looking at motif Artisanal blankets woven over the last 6 years it is easy to see just how variable motif variation is. Tracing iterations of motifs from the early 1970s to now (see last image) is an active part of my research and shows how weavers incorporate new forms using the foundational motif elements. By approaching patterns such as motif Artisanal as an archive of weaving development, we can re-consider long held assumptions of contemporary weaving. 

Master Dioula weaver Amara Coulibaly weaving motif Artisanal. Waraniéné, Côte d’Ivoire, 2022. Photographed by Emma C. Wingfield
Motif drawings from 1970 to 2022. The motif is motif Le Peigne, also known as motif Seri, meaning comb, because it emulates the teeth of a comb. This motif is one of the four foundational motifs that all weavers must master when learning to weave.

Contemporary handwoven textiles from northern Côte d’Ivoire owe their rich blend of practices and designs to the cross-cultural exchanges of people and cloth. Even today and especially at Waraniéné, cloth’s mobility is ever expanding as it circulates through the global economy. Contemporary iterations of patterns like motif Artisanal have deep and complex histories that are often unseen and kept within the mind of the weaver. Individual weavers continue to re-invent these patterns even within a commercial industry that often devalues and appropriates their work because of their contemporaneity.

Thank you to the Karun Thakar Fund and the Victoria and Albert Museum for their sponsorship of this research as well as the other two young scholars who continue to push the boundaries of research on African and Asian textiles.


Kerstin Bauer, Kleidung Und Kleidungspraktiken Im Norden Der Côte d’Ivoire : Geschichte Und Dynamiken Des Wandels Vom Ende Des 19. Jahrhunderts Bis Zur Gegenwart. Berlin: Lit, Cop, 2007

Yaëlle Biro and Noémie Étienne, ‘Introduction’ in Rhapsodic Objects: Art, Agency and Materiality (1700 – 2000), edited by Yaëlle Biro and Noémie Étienne, pp. 7–15. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022

Boatema Boeteng. The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here : Adinkra and Kente Cloth and Intellectual Property in Ghana. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2011

Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, ‘African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow’, African Arts 25, no. 2 (April 1992): 40

Victoria Rovine, Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008

Christopher B. Steiner, African Art in Transit, New York: Cambridge University, 2001

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