Manjak Fabric : A journey into the senegalese weaving tradition

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Lauren here again, reporting from Senegal. The last time we met on the Obatala blog, we were admiring the deep, saturated hues and rich history of Indigo fabrics produced in Senegal and neighboring countries.

This time, in line with the previous posts on gorgeous woven Kente cloth, we will dive into « pagne tissé », another type of traditional woven fabric, which has a long tradition here in Senegal.

textiles Manjak or Pagne Tisse of Senegal
Pagne tissé Manjak, on display at CAMEE (Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers de l’Élégance) in St. Louis, Senegal.

The most widely used woven fabric by locals is produced by Manjak weavers, who belong to the ethnic group of the same name. But despite their renown within the region, the Manjak community is very small; various figures put the Manjaks’ total population in West Africa at somewhere between 300,000 to 500,000, with the majority living in Guinée Bissau (the group’s country of origin).[1] But the community is also interspersed throughout the Gambia, Cape Verde, and Senegal, as well as in certain parts of France.[2] Here in Senegal, the Manjak make up no more than 1% of the total population.[3]

Manjak Textile of Senegal
Pagne tissé Manjak, traditional Cape Verdian design, on display at Galerie Atelier TËSSS in St. Louis, Senegal.

The presence of Manjak weaving in West Africa dates far back to the height of the slave trade, when Manjak weavers were held captive in Cape Verde, bringing them into direct contact with the Portuguese. According to Chris Spring in African Textiles Today, « … Manjak weavers still use the looms and techniques which their ancestors learned from the Portuguese when brought as slaves to the Cape Verde islands in the sixteenth century. »

 

Manjak Textile being woven in Senegal
Weaver Assane Diop, at work on a traditional Manjak loom, at Atelier TËSSS in St. Louis

Ms. Mai Diop, the founder of Galerie Atelier TËSSS in St. Louis – a workshop and gallery dedicated to preserving Manjak and other African weaving traditions – has conducted extensive research on the topic and reports that the Portuguese in Cape Verde organized the production of these highly decorated fabrics for trading purposes. [4] It was during this time that the Manjak weavers adopted European weaving techniques. Specifically, the weavers modified their rudimentary looms by adding supplementary heddles and thus, began working together with an assistant weaver. [5]

Assistant weaver helping weave Manjak textile
Assistant weaver Antoine Mendy, at work on a traditional Manjak loom, at Atelier TËSSS in St. Louis.

Sadly, the Manjak weaving tradition is slowly fading. The head weaver at TËSSS, Assane Diop, explained that many young Manjak men (weavers are traditionally men) are foregoing this « metier », as it is hard work that does not pay well. Interestingly, though, Diop himself is not a member of the Manjak community. Rather, he defied his Toucouleur familial traditions to become a weaver in the Manjak tradition, a vocation to which he is deeply committed. And together with Mai, who is originally from France and is a weaver herself, they research and recreate the traditional patterns and fabrics that hold great meaning for the Manjak community.

The value of the Manjak fabric lies not just in the weaving technique, but also in it’s ceremonial use marking the main rites of passage in a person’s life, particularly for women :

  • As a bed sheet, to serve as a fertility aid when conceiving ;
  • As a receiving blanket at birth ;
  • As a symbol of the link between a newborn and its community at the time christening ;
  • As a blanket, lining the cradle to protect the infant from sudden death ;
  • As a wrap, or « mbottukay », to carry the baby on mother’s back ; the cloth, wrapped tightly around mother and baby, is believed to serve as a protection from mystical aggressions ;
  • As a marriage veil ;
  • As a form of comforting contact for the elderly ;
  • And lastly, as a shroud in a person’s final moments of life.[6]

In addition, the motif of the fabric – often images of animals or sacred trees, and geometric figures – add special meaning and value to the fabric. The motifs are normally named after the image they depict, though some may also bear the name of its designer.[7] But the motifs should not be mistaken for symbols of a deeper, hidden meaning. They are literal expressions created by the weaver, with the only limits placed on his creativity, being the technical limitations of the machine[8].

Pagne tissé Manjak on display at Galerie Atelier TËSSS in St. Louis, Senegal.
Pagne tissé Manjak on display at Galerie Atelier TËSSS in St. Louis, Senegal.

Aside from its traditional uses, pagne tissé (including Manjak cloth specifically) has become a popular fabric for use in modern African fashion and home decor. In Senegal, Collé Ardo Sow and Aida Sene are well known for their clothing designs incorporating pagne tissé. And Aissa Dione’s renowned home accessories line highlights the fine detail of this fabric.

A fading tradition, a talisman bearing the history and culture of a group of people, an element of modern African design – Manjak fabric is many things. It is complex and beautiful, and above all an evocative cultural and historical link between past and present.

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Sources

[1] http://textilesmandjak.over-blog.com
[2] http://textilesmandjak.over-blog.com , http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2009.257/
[3] http://www.tesss.net/pages/l-atelier-tesss/notre-environnement-social-et-culturel.html
[4] “Pagnes… Panos… Les étoffes magnétiques des Mandjak. Guinee Bissau – Cap Vert – Senegal.” Livret par Mai Diop. Les Ateliers d’Art TESSS. St. Louis, Senegal.
[5] “Pagnes… Panos… Les étoffes magnétiques des Mandjak. Guinee Bissau – Cap Vert – Senegal.” Livret par Mai Diop. Les Ateliers d’Art TESSS. St. Louis, Senegal.
[6] http://www.guinee-bissau.net/manjaques.php , http://textilesmandjak.over-blog.com
[7] http://www.guinee-bissau.net/manjaques.php
[8] http://www.planete-senegal.com/senegal/ethnies_senegal.php

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