From Timbuktu to SF 

“We just returned from Timbuktu, and most people think it doesn’t even exist,” Cynthia LeCount Samaké said. She was e-mailing from an airplane as she returned to San Francisco from Africa with samples of the latest textiles.

Timbuktu does exist, and not just as the place where Donald Duck hid his treasure in a mid-1950s comic book. It’s a small city of about 30,000 in Mali, a West African nation with a long tradition of vibrant, handmade, hand-dyed cloth.

“She is bringing back the freshest of the fresh,” said Jennifer McCabe, director of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, where the exhibit — “Rhythm and Hues, Cloth and Culture of Mali,” curated by LeCount Samaké — opens this week.

Although Mali is often associated with the AIDS, poverty, tribal warfare and corrupt politicians its people contend with, LeCount Samaké says there’s more to Mali than its problems.

Design fans may know of Mali’s well-known “mud cloth,” dyed to an earthy rainbow of rich browns using fermented mud.

When women there put on a yorobani (a loose top with sleeves) for daily wear, or a boubou (a piece of cloth folded in half with the neck cut out) for special occasions, they focus on the positive, or even the proactive. And they do keep fashion fresh.

“Although the shapes of the garments remain fairly constant, the colors, patterns, designs and messages of the cloth ard constantly transforming,” LeCount Samaké says.

The cloth can be either hand-dyed with bright colors or factory-printed with messages, which include school logos, political preferences, health advice and photos of singers or politicians.

These words and images come and go as fast as hemlines and waistlines rise and fall in the United States. Last season’s Guinea-worm-eradication-campaign print quickly becomes this season’s hand-me-down for the maid or wear-around-the-house fallback.

LeCount Samaké, who travels to Mali often to lead tours and visit family (her husband is Malian), wants to show San Francisco a slice of everyday life there.

“The regular folks are living the best lives they know how, and are able to with dignity, grace, generosity and artistry,” she says. “That is the part that is not talked about enough.”

She will let Mali’s expressive textiles do the talking — along with wooden puppets, baskets and other traditional crafts — in the exhibit.

Rhythm and Hues, Cloth and Culture of Mali

Museum of Craft and Folk Art, 51 Yerba Buena Lane (at Mission Street between Third and Fourth streets), S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, except closed Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes May 2
Tickets: $5 general, $4 seniors, free for children under 18
Contact: (415) 227-4888,

Note: An opening reception is 6 to 8 p.m. today; curator Cynthia LeCount Samaké will give a tour at 7 p.m.

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