The Lion King of Mali

By Patricia Bentley

Sundiata Keita, whose name means Hungering Lion in the Mande language, founded the West African kingdom of Mali in 1235. Sundiata’s exploits as a famous hunter and king have been sung ever since by griots (oral storytellers) and jeli(musicians). They also sing of the great empires of Ghana (700-1076) and Songhay (1468-1591) in the semi-arid region called the Sahel, south of the Sahara Desert and north of the rainforest.

Mali, Ghana and Songhay were the largest and best-known kingdoms of ancient and medieval West Africa but there were other important civilizations as well. In the rainforests south of the Sahel, Ife was the first of the Yoruba cities and the kingdom of Benin was founded by Yoruba rulers in what is now Nigeria. The Lion King of Mali examines the legacy of these West African kingdoms in a selection of textiles from the collection of the Textile Museum of Canada.

At a time in history when Europe was racked with the Black Plague and enduring the Hundred Years’ War, many West Africans were enjoying peace and prosperity in learned civilizations. Their wealth was based on their control of two resources: gold to the south and salt to the north. Salt was so valuable it was traded pound for pound for gold. The Soninke people, founders of the Ghana kingdom, taxed Berber and Tuareg traders who had to travel through their kingdoms to purchase these commodities. In 1957 the modern nation of Ghana took the ancient kingdom’s name.

Sundiata founded the kingdom of Mali but his descendant, Mansa Musa, expanded and stabilized it, traveling in 1324 to Mecca for a hajj (holy pilgrimage) and dispensing so much gold on the way that the world beyond Africa began to learn of the wealth and splendour of the fabled cities of Mali. In Timbuktu, Djenne and Gao, scholars in Islamic universities studied Greek and Roman texts that had disappeared from Europe during the Dark Ages. Djenne had a medical centre where the mosquito was discovered to be the cause of malaria, and where delicate operations were performed by skilled surgeons.

Citizens of West Africa and the African Diaspora have shared their gifts with the world: the distinctive architecture, the inspired textile techniques, and the musical forms – blues, jazz, rock and hip hop – that dominate popular Western music. Salif Keita, one of Africa’s most renowned musicians, is descended through both parents from Mande’s founding figure Sundiata Keita, the Lion King of Mali.

Featured Artifacts

Quilt
United States, early 20th century
Cotton, hand pieced and hand quilted
Gift of Carol Telfer
T2005.34.1 Textile Museum of Canada

Initiation shirt
Kiembara, Burkina Faso, Mossi people, late 20th century
Cotton, strip woven, applied packets, painted
Gift of Victoria Henry
T91.0091 Textile Museum of Canada

Mud cloth wrapper (bogolanfini)
Mali, Bamana people, 20th century
Cotton, strip woven and painted with mud
Purchase
T77.0006 Textile Museum of Canada

Robe
Nigeria, Hausa people, 20th century
Wild silk, strip-woven and embroidered
From the Opekar/Webster Collection
T94.3005 Textile Museum of Canada

Robe
Nigeria, Nupe people, late 19th century
Silk and cotton, strip-woven and embroidered
From the Opekar/Webster Collection
T94.3003 Textile Museum of Canada

Adire stencil
Nigeria, Yoruba people, late 20th century
Zinc sheet, cut out and punched
From the Opekar/Webster Collection
T94.2158 Textile Museum of Canada

Wrapper
Nigeria, Yoruba people, late 20th century
Cotton, paste resist dyed
From The Opekar/Webster Collection
T94.2095 Textile Museum of Canada

Diviner’s necklace (òdìgbà ifà)
Nigeria, Yoruba people, 19th century
Glass beads, strung on cotton cord and sewn on woven cotton and jute foundation
Gift of Dr. Peter Herschman
T90.0118 Textile Museum of Canada

Diviner’s necklace (òdìgbà ifà)
Nigeria, Yoruba people, 20th century
Glass beads, strung on cotton cord and sewn on leather foundation
Gift of Dr. Peter Herschman
T90.0119 Textile Museum of Canada

Wrapper (filafani)
Côte d’Ivoire, Senufo people, 20th century
Cotton, strip woven and painted with mud
T87.0233 Textile Museum of Canada

Hat
Nigeria, 20th century
Straw, twined, with painted leather trim
Gift of Klaas Van Graft
T95.0090 Textile Museum of Canada

Wrapper or blanket
Mali, Djerma people, 20th century
Cotton, strip woven with supplementary weft float patterns
Gift of Barbara Barde
T04.34.2 Textile Museum of Canada

© 2008 Textile Museum of Canada