From Timbuktu to Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Exhibit Highlights Mali's Intellectual Roots, Cultural Traditions

By Brotherton, Phaedra | Black Issues in Higher Education, June 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

From Timbuktu to Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Exhibit Highlights Mali's Intellectual Roots, Cultural Traditions


Brotherton, Phaedra, Black Issues in Higher Education


An important center of learning where Islamic and West African scholars met and attracted thousands of students around West Africa to come and study, Timbuktu has recently become a major area of academic study. And Washington's Smithsonian Institution hopes to introduce and educate people about Timbuktu's rich history and culture during the institution's 37th annual Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., which will be held on the National Mall later this month. The Folklife Festival, produced by the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and cosponsored by the National Park Service, has become a national and international model of a research-based presentation of contemporary living cultural traditions.

According to the Center, it has brought more than 16,000 musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, workers, cooks, storytellers and others to the National Mall to demonstrate the skills, knowledge and aesthetics that embody the creative vitality of community-based traditions. In addition to Mali, this year's festival will explore the living traditional cultures of Scotland and Appalachia.

"Mali is best known for the city of Timbuktu, founded in 1100 as the heart of the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade," says John W. Franklin, program manager of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and co-curator of the Mali program, along with Dr. Mary Jo Arnoldi of the National Museum of National History and Samuel Sidibe, director of the National Museum of Mali. "(Timbuktu's) famous mosques and universities were destinations for aspiring scholars to study religion, literature, mathematics, law, physics and history."

Franklin, son of historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, says the Mali exhibit has been in the works since 1998. He says the U.S. ambassador to Mali, David Rawson, and Malian tour operator, Djibril Taboure were looking for a way to increase Mali's profile in the United States on "a number of levels."

"First and foremost is the lack of awareness Americans have of specific African countries and on Mali's existence," Franklin says. While everyone has heard of Timbuktu, "most don't know that it is a real place in Mali," he says. They also don't realize Mali's significance in West African history of being a commercial center, particularly in the salt and gold trade between Africa and Europe and Africa and Asia, he says.

"We want to encourage people to consider going to Mali ... Particularly because it's being taught as a subject in our schools in Virginia, Maryland and California as part of the curriculum," he says. The Smithsonian also is organizing a seminar for teachers to help them learn about Mali.

A major part of the exhibit, "Mali: From Timbuktu to Washington, D.C.," will include Malian oral traditions. Griots, who sing about the glories of the empires of Mali, Ghana and Songhai, as well as storytellers, who pass their tales from one generation to the next, will be featured. In addition to the country's history, the festival will highlight the community-based, contemporary culture of Mali through crafts, architecture, music and food.

"Mali has a community-based culture that is learned in the family and neighborhood," Franklin says. To coincide with the festival, the Library of Congress is organizing an exhibition of some of Mali's ancient Arabic manuscripts.

A major cotton exporter, Mali is famous for its textiles. Craftspeople will demonstrate how these textiles, including "bogolan" or mudcloth, a cotton mud-dyed with black, brown and blue designs, are created. Craftspeople also will demonstrate textile processes including hand and machine embroidery, and Malian attire will be presented during daily fashion shows. …

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