Fulani nomads do not change their fashion as frequently as other sedentary groups, thus traces of past aesthetic traditions tend to be perceptible in contemporary times. Fulani often entrust members of specialized castes or foreigners with the fabrication of their objects. Thus, the label “Fulani art” reflects ownership and not manufacture. Leather amulets, knife handles, sheaths, and sandals are decorated with geometric designs that reflect Fulani symbolism and bear the influence of Tuareg and Berber aesthetics. Objects are tinted in bright colors of red, yellow, or white and green, and often feature long fringes. Some of the designs are cross ethnic: the zigzag bordered by parallel lines, for instance, is shared by Fulani and Dogon alike.
Fulani aesthetic expression is, with exceptions, inscribed on objects or sites of an ephemeral nature. Above all, Fulani people are known for their mastery of verbal art expressed in song and poetry. They are also renowned for their elaborate art of body adornment. Men and women alike are fond of tattooing. They wear amulets (lohol) as both protective and decorative elements. Women wear heavy twisted gold earrings (dibi), gold necklaces (caaka), and copper or white metal bracelets, round or open with bulging extremities, and delicately engraved with dotted lines. Blacksmiths used to make heavy and thick anklets that gave young Wodaabe women a “cowlike” step, much appreciated in this herders’ culture. Women from other Fulani groups wore copper or brass leg ornaments or anklets made by the lost-wax casting process. These rings might once have served as currency.
Men’s clothing includes a conical herdsman hat—in red, black, and natural color—made of woven raffia and leather, with geometric design in the form of a cross, complete with a prominent button, the “Mount of the world.” Men also wear leather or baggy fabric pants, and use woven blankets with geometric patterns. Wodaabe people are famous for organizing male beauty contests, know as yaake or gerewol.
Fulani women, who are in charge of building the family tents or temporary shelters, weave wall and floor mats. Besides nomadic architecture, they specialize in the decoration of calabashes and wooden bowls (la’al kosam). Calabashes are pyro-engraved with a combination of abstract and figural motifs and colored with pigments. In the cow-centered Fulani culture, milk bowls are also important objects for the household. They are used as storage containers for fresh, curdled milk and grains. An artifact, symbol of the pastoral life and of the cooperation between men who keep the herd and women who milk the cows, the la’al kosam encapsulates Fulani identity. Because of their delicate chiseling, smoke-derived patina, and exquisite decorative treatment, bowls and calabashes could be considered as the true focus of aesthetic efforts of the Fulani people.
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Art and the Fulani/Fulbe People.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fula/hd_fula.htm (October 2002)