Research Residency & Community Workshop Series

Aboubakar Fofana is a multidisciplinary artist and designer whose working mediums include calligraphy, textiles and natural dyes. He is known for his work in reinvigorating and redefining West African indigo dyeing techniques, and much of his focus is devoted to the preservation and reinterpretation of traditional West African textile and natural dyeing techniques and materials.

During his time on residence in 2023, Aboubakar undertook the first research phase of an ongoing residency partnership with InPlace at Garambi Baan/Laughing Waters. Aboubakar also delivered a series of multi day workshops for small numbers of participants, ranging from a fructose indigo workshop, mineral mud-dye, mordanted dye workshops and yarn dyeing, to stitching workshops using handspun and handwoven finimugu cotton that Aboubakar has grown and woven at his farm in Mali.

In 2024, Aboubakar returns for his second research residency with InPlace, during which he will be consulting with Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Traditional Custodians and practitioners from across the sector, researching the viability and appropriateness of undertaking an indigenous Indigofera Australis dye vat in future years, and locating appropriate crop sites to grow large quantities of Indigofera Australis.


Installation by Aboubakar Fofana. Tente moustiquaire, Fleuve Niger, Mali. Photo: Courtesy of Aboubakar Fofana.


Born in Mali in 1967, Aboubakar Fofana left the African continent at an early age for Paris. Fofana’s founding discipline was calligraphy. Fascinated by the sign and the trace, he drew on Western and Eastern traditions to help him master his medium. He wondered if Africa had something similar, and then a series of chance happenings revealed a trove of scripts from across the continent. His first major installation was based around these many written forms, ancient and modern, countering the romantic belief that all African societies belong to oral traditions, and reflecting Fofana’s own spiritual revolution toward Africa as a source of inspiration. And then he remembered a plant he had seen in a forest as a young boy, before his dislocation; a plant that had ordinary-looking green leaves that, when crushed, stained the fingers blue.

Returning to West Africa, he traveled extensively throughout the region, looking for anybody who could teach him to put together a working fermented indigo vat. But the skills had disappeared before he was born, replaced by chemical dyestuffs, leaving only fragments of knowledge. He found much of the information he had been seeking in a library in Paris, pinned into the dry leaves of pre-independence accounts of daily life in West Africa. For many years he went back and forth between his two worlds, taking the pieces of knowledge he found in both places and trying to put them into practice.

Fofana’s tangible output is the result of a spiritual practice based on his fundamental belief that nature is divine, and this is how he shares his practice with an audience. His skill comes from decades of learning to work in harmony with the forces of nature, and his materials, their limitations and innate qualities, utterly inform every aspect of his work. His indigo vats are alive. They contain few ingredients and no chemicals – the color comes from the indigo leaves themselves, pounded and dried. Bacteria, carefully nurtured inside the vat, make the indigotin pigment in the leaves accessible and help to reduce it to a form whereby it will oxidize directly onto the fabric.

Fofana’s work embodies a conscious attempt to hold and defend his techniques and materials, and the environment and human philosophies that gave rise to them. For Fofana, the natural world along with our own human ability is where we began, and it is how we will finish.

  • Johanna Macnaughtan

Aboubakar Fofana. Photo: Jonas Unger

Aboubakar Fofana ‘Ka touba Farafina ye’ (‘Africa blessing’) 2017. 54 lambs, the African continent, indigo, pasture, and people. Agricultural University of Athens, Athens. Documenta 14 (photo: Stathis Mamalakis, courtesy Documenta 14)