By Dr. Christa Clarke
The boubou is a distinctive type of prestige dress worn by well-to-do men and women across a wide swath of western Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon. Its name is a French distortion of the word mbubb which refers to a loose-fitting ankle-length caftan worn in Senegal. The term was broadly adopted in the colonial-era to describe a type of voluminous, flowing gown with long sleeves and a neck opening. The style, which may date from at least the eighth century, was traditionally worn exclusively by men until the twentieth century. Historically worn by Muslim communities in West Africa, the boubou was popularized through the spread of Islam in the nineteenth century. The high-status garment was widely adopted throughout the region by elites, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The style remains fashionable today, not only in West Africa but elsewhere on the continent and in its .
Creating a boubou
This majestic robe now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is a regional interpretation of the iconic style, known as a kusaibi, made at the turn of the twentieth century. The expert execution of this garment, with its elaborate embroidered designs, heralds the wealth and prestige of its wearer. The garment has been fashioned from multiple narrow strips of hand-spun and hand-woven cotton sewn together, forming a single piece of cloth that stretches more than five feet from sleeve to sleeve. The shorter length, falling to the knees, was fashionable in this region. The strips have been dyed with indigo, a local plant that yields a rich blue color considered to be both beautiful and prestigious. Intricate hand-stitched embroidered designs edge the square yoke of the garment and cover its front and back. The deep hue of the fabric offsets to dramatic effect the contrasting red and white of the embroidery. The fine stitching is done with silk threads, further enhancing the garment’s prestige. Each stage of production has been done by different specialist artisans—the dyeing by women and the weaving and embroidering by men—making the robe a collaborative aesthetic effort.
Design elements and symbols
The embroidery on this robe is particularly elaborate. Many of the decorative motifs draw upon Islamic designs. In fact, the specialists who embroidered such garments were often also malams, or scholars of Islam. Their knowledge of Arabic writing and symbolism informed the stitched designs. Here, the yoke is embellished with multiple squares of geometric designs whose box-like forms are echoed in the patterns throughout the front of the garment. These are “magic squares” or hatumere, an Islamic design motif that evokes the form and symbolism of a protective amulet.
The robe is also distinctive for its incorporation of representational motifs. On the front, a pecking bird adorns the right sleeve while the left features a cluster of cowrie shells and a frog leaping to escape a snake wriggling in hot pursuit.
The back of the garment is even more extensively embroidered. On each side are mounted riders who hold the reins of their horses with a single outstretched arm. The leopards below them identify the men as warriors. They flank a single male figure with upraised hands as if admitting defeat. Near the shoulders on either side are mancala boards, an ancient game popular throughout west Africa. We do not have answers as to meaning, but similar design elements have been identified on about 23 other examples in museum collections.
Objects and exchange
This robe tells a story about objects and exchange, both in and outside of Africa. It has changed hands several times since it was first made, some time at around the turn of the twentieth century. It was formerly owned by a Mano chief living in the village of Blaui, in northern Liberia. Liberia was founded in 1847 as an independent nation by free people of color who emigrated from the United States to West Africa. The style of the robe, however, is more typical of those made and worn by elite Mandinka men, a predominantly Islamic ethnic group that settled in the region beginning in second half of the nineteenth century, reflecting how fashions readily crossed cultural borders. It is among a small group of similar robes in museum collections, the earliest of which made a splash in The Illustrated London News when it was first brought back by a British captain returning from a year surveying the west African coast (it’s now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford). The chief, whose name was not recorded, may have purchased it from an itinerant trader, someone who was plying his wares in the area where the present-day nations of Liberia, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire meet. The robe’s almost pristine condition suggests that the chief treasured the robe as an heirloom and wore it only infrequently, on special occasions.
In 1932, the chief sold the robe to Alfred Tulk, a 33-year-old artist from the United States who was visiting a college friend at a Methodist Mission in nearby Ganta. Why would such a prized possession be offered for sale? The answer is likely the impact of economic changes of the 1930s. The Liberian government, controlled by descendants of the original African-American settlers and based in coastal Monrovia, had recently introduced property taxes to be paid in cash. Inhabitants of the rural interior, indigenous communities who previously traded by barter, suddenly needed currency. The imposition of taxes was essentially a strategy designed to meet the need for cheap labor for the country’s growing economy. It put pressure on those from the interior to come work on cash-crop plantations, which were largely driven by American economic interest. The need to earn money also induced individuals to sell their possessions as well as inspired local artisans to create objects for sale, in addition to (or sometimes rather than) those made for indigenous use.
Tulk acquired a small but noteworthy collection during his eighteen months in Liberia. Some were purchased from people selling art to pay taxes, including both heirlooms (like this robe) and works made expressly for outsiders. Tulk describes some of these collecting encounters in his diary. In 1933, for example, a group of local dignitaries came to visit him and his wife Ethel, presenting him with an elaborately sculpted ceremonial ladle in the form of a female figure. “I had promised I would help [Chief] Bli Mi with his tax palaver if he could find me something I liked to buy…We both felt the thing was worth £ 2 but since the tax debt was £ 2-10 we agreed to be generous and pay the larger sum.” While the male chiefs seemed pleased with the negotiations, the titled woman or wunkirle who possessed the spoon as a mark of her great distinction within the community was less satisfied. Tulk responded accordingly: “So that all should be well, I added five shillings ‘on top’ – and even the woman was happy.” 
Like many Western collectors of his era, Tulk was especially drawn to sculptural forms—masks and figural sculpture, like the ceremonial spoon. These were the types of objects that had profoundly impacted the work of artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse two decades prior. For most Western admirers of African art, the continent remained an abstract concept. But Tulk’s firsthand experience gave him a broader understanding of cultural context. He not only witnessed masquerades and dance performances but was a keen observer of everyday life, fostering his appreciation of utilitarian forms of art as well as dress. The robe Tulk purchased in Liberia was a treasured possession for nearly half a century before its sale to a Boston-based collector of African art and, ultimately, its gifting to the museum.
 Christopher Steiner, Liberia, 1931–1933: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk (Fairfield, CT. Fairfield University Art Museum, 2018), np.
Bernhard Gardi, Le Boubou – c’est chic. Les boubous du Mali et d’autres pays de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (Basel: Museum der Kulturen Basel and Christoph Merian Verlag, 2002).
Victoria L. Rovine. “West African Embroidery: History, Continuity and Innovation,” in African Interweave: Textile Diasporas (Gainesville, FL: Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, 2011), pp. 57-73.
Christopher Steiner, Liberia, 1931–1933: The Collections of Alfred J. Tulk (Fairfield, CT. Fairfield University Art Museum, 2018).
Essay by Dr. Christa Clarke