This boldly-posed figure of a standing woman is na rarity, made by the Baga of Guinea Bissau. It is an interesting fusion of traditional and progressive (perhaps European) styles, with typical proportions, extensive scarring/adornment, but with a serenely naturalistic face and what are definitely thong sandals. The body is very curvaceous, with pronounced breasts, and the abdomen is completely covered with hatched geometric scar patterning. The ornate coiffure, decorated loincloth, bracelets and neck rings/necklace all indicate high status or wealth, and the sandals themselves have a similar meaning, as imported items were – and indeed are – aspirational objects for many African groups.
The Baga live on the Coast of Guinea, and are named for the phrase bae-raka: People of the Seaside. They speak their own language and also the Mande language, Susu. The Baga are one of several groups of coastal Guinea Bissau, and live in village environments traditionally ruled over by clan heads. Their economy is based upon rice agriculture and fishing; the latter may have been secondarily learned as oral tradition states that the Baga people migrated from inland areas towards the sea by a hostile invasion of their homelands.
Their traditional religion was forced out by the arrival of Islam in the mid 20th century, leading to a plethora of art objects arriving in western markets. Perhaps the best-known is the large four-legged Nimba mask, which is associated with fertility of both crops and women; figures, drums and head-crests are also known, but are very rare. They also made impressive caryatid stools, which were considered to be prestige objects and were used by elders during secret meetings.
The precise role of this piece is uncertain, but her flagrant femininity, obvious wealth and careful rendering suggest that she was an important person/spirit for the makers. This is a rare and impressive piece of African art.
- (PF.4876 (LSO))