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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Bambara Wooden Face Mask
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Bambara Wooden Face Mask - X.1040 (LSO)
Origin: Mali
Circa: 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 11.0" (27.9cm) high x 6.25" (15.9cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: Great Britain
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This striking mask was made by the Bambara (or Bamana) people of Mali, and is an unusual example of the genre. It comprises a rather lugubrious masculine face with a high helmet-like item of headwear, and long hatched plaits on either side of the face. The face is very elongated with a T-bar nose and brows complex, heavily lidded eyes and small, pursed lips. The ears are small, cup-shaped and highly placed. The rear of the mask is hollowed for wearing over the face, and has four large holes bored into the rim, presumable for the attachment of a textile hood. The patination is very even and glossy.

The Bambara/Bamana are one of the largest groups in Mali (about 2.5 million) and lives in a savannah grassland area that contrasts strongly with the Dogon heartland. Their linguistic heritage indicates that they are part of the Mande group, although their origins go back perhaps as far as 1500 BC in the present-day Sahara. They gave rise to the Bozo, who founded Djenne in an area subsequently overrun by the Soninke Mande (<1100 AD). Their last empire dissolved in the 1600s, and many Mande speakers spread out along the Nigeria River Basin. The Bamana empire arose from these remnant populations in around 1740. The height of its imperial strength was reached in the 1780s under the rule of Ngolo Diarra, who expanded their territory considerably.

Their society is Mande-like overall, with patrilineal descent and a nobility/vassal caste system that is further divided into numerous subvariants including the Jula (traders), Fula (cattle herding), Bozo (indentured slaves) and Maraka (rich merchants). Age, sex and occupation groups are classed to reflect their social importance. This complex structure is echoed in the systematics of indigenous art traditions. Sculptures include Guandousou, Guaitigi and Guanyenni figures – that are used to promote fertility and social balance – while heavily encrusted zoomorphic Boli figures serve an apotropaic function, and curvaceous dyonyeni sculptures are used in initiation ceremonies. Everyday items include iron staffs, wooden puppets and equestrian figures; their sexually-constructed anthropomorphic door locks are especially well- known. There are four main mask forms. The N’tomo society has the best-known form, with a tall, face topped by a vertical comb structure. The Komo society uses an elongated, demonic-looking mask with various animal parts arranged into a fearsome zoomorphic form that is worn atop the head. The Nama society uses a mask that is based around an articulated bird’s head, while the little-known Kpore rituals involve a deconstructed animal head. Chiwara headcrests are usually considered separately.

This mask, however, poses something of a quandary as it does match any of these descriptions. In crude terms, it is perhaps most like the N’tomo society as it is a human face, and not an animal or a bird. However, the typical styling – notably the coiffure – is absent, and while regional variability is inevitable, such large elements are unlikely to have been left out in toto. The lack of match must be viewed as a positive, however, for this is the first such mask that we have seen, and it is very likely to be a rare or even unique variant, reflecting a hitherto unexplored social behavior of the Bambara/Bamana people. It is also a charming and attractive piece of art.

- (X.1040 (LSO))


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