A Traditional Mandinka Man’s Robe, Liberia.
“White and red embroidery glows against this deep indigo robe once owned by a Mano chief living in Blaui, a small town in northern Liberia. The narrow neck of the garment, edged in red appliqué and squares with intricate embroidery patterns, created a small box around the wearer’s neck that is repeated in the geometric patterns below. Together, these motifs are called hatumere, an Islamic design sometimes used for protective amulets or healing prayers with the worshipper’s name inscribed in the center. Further elaborations on the square motifs adorn the proper right arm, while a bird, a set of embroidered cowrie shells set in a blossom design, and a wriggling snake chasing a frog ornament the left arm.
The front of this garment is spectacular, but the reverse is even more impressive. Although twenty-three robes from this period exist in international collections, only five bear the figural decoration found on the back of this piece. Mounted riders, identified as powerful warriors by the leopards depicted below them, flank a nude man. All the figures hold their arms aloft—the riders to control their horses, the central figure possibly in a gesture of surrender. Above the riders’ heads are mancala game boards and birds, which would have rested on the owner’s shoulders when he wore the robe. The symmetrical composition is composed of a great variety of embroidery patterns and color, giving a sense of individuality to each of the paired figures. The fine condition of the fabric suggests that this garment was worn only on special occasions.
This piece was purchased from its owner by Alfred Tulk, an artist who was visiting his university friend, Dr. George Harley, in Ganta in northern Liberia from 1931 to 1933. Although the original owner’s name was not recorded, it is likely that he purchased this robe from a “Mandingo” trader—that is, an itinerant Islamic trader from Mali who worked in the border area where Liberia, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire meet. This robe tells an important story about changing style in men’s dress during the nineteenth century, when desire for these Islamic-inspired robes, called boubou, swept through West Africa. Most men wore the robes so that they fell at mid-calf, but this one falls at the knees, a length fashionable only in Liberia. The red silk threads were reused from old British uniform fabric, another link in a global chain of fashion and exchange. The man who sold the robe to Tulk may have done so to earn money for taxes: in the 1930s, the coastal Liberian government had recently required all householders to pay their taxes in cash, a great burden on northern communities who traded primarily by barter.”