The University of Iowa University of Iowa


Types of Art

Fulani artists are primarily known for decorated gourds, textiles, hairstyles and personal adornment. In terms of style and color, Fulani art commonly features geometric shapes as motifs and meticulous details-, especially in textiles and gourds, and the use of black, red, yellow and white. Important collections of Fulani art appear at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Musée de Bamako in Mali.

Gourds decorated by Fulani artists range from those with a plain to an elaborate patterned surface. They commonly take one of the four following shapes: 1), globular,; 2), flattened globular; 3), tubular; and 4), bottle shaped. When decorating gourds, Fulani women use abstract motifs, such as circles, squares, triangles and lines, as well as figural motifs such as people, camels, and airplanes. There are two main methods of decoration: pyro-engraving and pressure engraving. Pyro-engraving involves burning lines into the surface of the gourd with a hot metal blade, while pressure engraving generally consists of using a jalbal (an iron point). Pressure engraving designs created by pastoral Fulani generally take two forms: 1), “vertical arrangements of motifs around the outer edge area leaving the center free” and 2), a design divided into into four equal parts, which means greater use of the gourd’s surface area (Berns and Hudson 1986).

Kaakel demonstrate that gourds are an important part of a woman’s social and economic status. Kaakel is a way for women to display fifty or more gourds encased in wooden mesh supported by two wooden poles. Because gourds are lightweight and easy to transport, they provide an ideal art form for those who lead a nomadic lifestyle.

In the Middle Niger area of Mali, there is a renowned class of male weavers known as the madoube. Men typically weave while women spin wool and cotton. One type of textile produced by the madoube is called khasa. These range in size from approximately 3.9 to 4.2 feet (1.2 – 1.3 meters) by six to eight feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters). Herders use khasa to keep warm and ward off mosquitoes. The dominant color is white, but black, red and yellow are also used. For example, see X1990.622, X1990.609, and 2017.402 in the Stanley Museum of Art permanent collection. They feature patterns containing triangles, chevrons, and lines.

Kereka are another form of textiles created by madoube. They are suspended over the bed in a tent like fashion and are used as mosquito nets. The dominant color of kereka is red, but white, black, and yellow are also common. Typically, they measure approximately sixteen by six and a half feet (4.8 by two meters). There is a wide range of patterns, however, and many are based on similar geometric designs (Imperato 1976). Arkilla are also a type of textile used as a mosquito net that are hung by a bride’s marriage bed. Hairstyles also provide an important example of Fulani creative expression. Among women, there are two basic styles on which others are based: 1), a high crest that runs from the forehead to the nape of the neck with braids that hang in front of and behind the ears and 2), braids that hang all around the head leaving the center of the head free (Roy 2007). These hairstyles also allow women to carry objects on their heads. Women also decorate their hair further by adding silver picks and other accessories.

Personal adornment is an important part of gerewol, the beauty competition during which three of the most beautiful maidens choose the most handsome Fulani man. Men line up and dance for hours while making exaggerated facial expressions and standing on their tip-toes to showcase their charm. Men use red-colored ocher on their faces, tight wrappers around their hips, white ostrich plumes on their headdresses, and strings of white beads crisscrossing their chests. They use black make-up on their lips and rims of their eyes to highlight the whiteness of their teeth and eyes.


Fulani are a nomadic peoples who have been influential in regional politics, economics, and histories throughout western Africa for over a thousand years. They played a significant role in the rise and fall of the Mossi states in Burkina and also contributed to the migratory movements of people southward through Niger and Nigeria into Cameroon. They were also responsible for introducing and spreading Islam throughout much of western Africa. The height of the Fulani empire was between the early 1800s and early 1900s. This power was consolidated under Usman dan Fodio and was centered in northern Nigeria. Dan Fodio was a devout Muslim who used religious fervor to ignite his troops to undertake a series of holy wars. Following the early success of Islamic warriors, non-Islamic Fulani joined ranks with their fellows to form an extensive and powerful empire.


Fulani are mainly nomadic herders and traders. The routes they established in western Africa provided extensive links throughout the region that fostered economic and political ties between otherwise isolated ethnic groups. Dairy products produced from Fulani cattle were traded to sedentary farmers for agricultural products and luxury items. Fulani traders then traded these luxury items between various groups along their nomadic routes. Members of individual Fulani clans often settled down among their sedentary neighbors, intermarrying and establishing trading contacts for future business transactions.

Political Systems

The two most significant factors in Fulani political systems are clientage and competition. In order to gain political office a Fulani man would have to compete among his fellows for the right to rule. He could show his political favor by demonstrating that he had a large following in the form of individuals and families. By agreeing to become the client of a powerful man or family, a subject would offer tribute in the form of gifts and political support in exchange for the security of knowing that a person with political power would be looking out for the interests of the subject.


Fulani religion is largely, if not wholly, Islamic. Although there are varying degrees of orthodoxy exhibited throughout Fulani society, most adhere to at least some of the basic requirements of the religion. It is usually the case that the wealthy and powerful are among the most religious, while those who have fewer resources are less likely to observe their religion so strictly. Islam has been used to justify the holy jihads that brought the northern territories of modern day Nigeria under Fulani leadership. It was not unusual that such political and economic gains would be made for the Fulani empire in the name of Islam.

Facts about Fulani


Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Niger, Nigeria


Pulaar, Fulfulde



Neighboring Peoples

Tuareg, Hausa


Fula Song of Welcoming to Djenné

Mali; Fulani (Fula) peoples
"Fula Song of Welcoming to Djenné"
Mali, Kondo, Bamako and elsewhere, Bamana, Fula and Dogon, 1984- 1987
Collected by Peter Lucas
Indiana University, Bloomington
Archives of Traditional Music