Discover Malian Culture: The 4 Marvellous M's

Explore the cornerstones of Mali’s culture: manuscripts, music, monuments, and modern art

By Google Arts & Culture

Camel Riders in the Desert of Timbuktu (2011) by Festival au DesertTimbuktu Renaissance

M is for Mali

Timbuktu is a city fabled to exist at the edge of the world, where the southern stretches of the Sahara desert end and a world of rich scholarly tradition, architectural wonder, and abound artistic creativity begins. In reality, it’s located in the West African country of Mali, a place filled to the brim with culture to explore.

Destruction de manuscrits par les djihadistes à l'Institut Ahmed Baba à Tombouctou en 2012SAVAMA-DCI

Mali’s story has often been told with attention to the violence and political unrest the nation has experienced, namely the 2012 coup and subsequent ten-month Jihadist occupation. But the Malian people have not let their culture become a victim of destruction. 

Timbuktu 20 by UNESCOUNESCO World Heritage

From rescuing the ancient manuscripts that families safeguarded for years from total destruction, to the contemporary artistic movements that are rising from times of turmoil, the resilience of Mali’s people and culture has been proven.

Mali map

Get to know the cornerstones of Malian culture through the four M’s…

Quran manuscript close upSAVAMA-DCI

M is for Manuscripts

Timbuktu’s literary history represents a key pillar of the cultural legacy that Mali has inherited and preserved over the centuries. Erudite knowledge of the Islamic world, mainly of the 14th to 16th centuries, was documented in beautiful script on decorated folios known today as the Timbuktu manuscripts.

Conservation de manuscrits dans des malles avant le déménagementSAVAMA-DCI

Though the known texts number around 377,000 pages, the manuscripts owe their survival to the individual families and households of Timbuktu who have safeguarded them for centuries, and to the people who evacuated them to safety after extremists seized the city. 

Manuscript scanningInstruments for Africa

The manuscripts are now under the protection of SAVAMA-DCI, the guardians of the manuscripts, who seek to document digitize the artefacts that remain while maintaining Mali’s tradition of academic study. 

Khaira Arby Performs at the Festival Au Désert (2012) by Festival au DésertTimbuktu Renaissance

M is for Music

From tribal song and dance accompanied by unique traditional instruments to the Festival of the Desert that has hosted the likes of U2 and Mali’s own Fatoumata Diawara, Mali is a place infused with rhythm courtesy of a widespread passion for music. 

Fatoumata Diawara

While late 20th century vinyl collections capture the sound of Mali’s musical golden age, iterations of which can be heard in American blues, Grammy-award nominee Fatoumata Diawara ushers Malian music to the front of the world music scene, embedding her heritage into every track she performs. 

M is for Monuments

A third layer of Mali’s unique cultural landscape is made up of its mosques, mausoleums and monuments. 

A crowd in front of the Great Mosque of DjennéInstruments for Africa

These structures are not just iterations of historic mud architectural styles and commemorations of past events; they are kept alive by the communities who have maintained for centuries and the efforts to restore them after their recent destruction by those attempting to shake the foundations of Malian culture and identity.

Several factors, from political unrest and the end of tourism to globalization and pollution, put Mali’s monuments, and its culture at large, at risk. Exploring monuments like the Great Mosque of Djenne in 3D, or the Great Mosque of Niono in Street View, it’s clear that this built heritage is worth protecting and preserving. 

Dramane Toloba artworksInstruments for Africa

M is for Modern Art

Carrying out Mali’s lasting legacy of creativity and vibrant culture are the country’s talented current generation of contemporary artists. 

Ange DakouoInstruments for Africa

Painters, sculptors, and mixed-media creators reflect the colour and chaos that they see in the world around them, entwining Mali’s expressive culture with their own unique perspectives, ambitions and explorations.

Opa Bathily and his artworkInstruments for Africa

Addressing the difficulties and destruction that Mali has endured throughout both recent and colonial history, the country’s art scene might represent a space in which Mali’s past can be processed and, through culture and creativity, a future can be rebuilt.

Opa Bathily artwork1Instruments for Africa

“The day we admit that we lost everything for the profit of others; that day we can truly begin to rediscover ourselves,” says Malian contemporary artist Amadou Sanogo. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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