Hunter's Shirt

West Africa, Mali
Malinke, late 19th - early 20th Century
Cloth, leather, shells, animal claws, horns
Ex coll. William S. Arnett

Malinke hunters of West Africa hold an important position within their communities: they have the knowledge and training to travel across hazardous areas and hunt dangerous animals. Hunters are distinguished by the shirts they wear; each is unique and tells the hunter’s story through the items collected and attached to it. Every hunter constructs his own shirt over the course of his life to reflect his skill controlling the powerful life force called nyama, with which everything is imbued. He will wrap talons, horns, and teeth of animals he has killed; dye the fabric with herbs; include medicine in pouches affixed to the shirt with leather strips; and add mirrors to reflect light and deflect negative spiritual energies. These shirts are worn during festivals and public occasions rather than while the hunters are at work, where practical attire is more appropriate.
For over a millennium, West Africa has seen the presence and influence of Islam, and for Mande-speaking hunters, these shirts are an important part of their protection and power. The apotropaic leather packets contain small pieces of paper with verses from the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Though we have not opened the packets on this hunter’s shirt to see what inscriptions were written, typically blacksmiths and teachers of Islam, who hold a special status within society, choose the words of God to protect and empower the hunter.