This elegant figure of a woman was made by the
Bamana (or Bambara) of Mali. It represents a woman
with short legs and a pronounced thorax. The body
is powerful, with slim limbs and very prominent
breasts. The neck is columnar and long, with a tall
head, topped with a pointed hat. The hair is
arranged into a pair of angled spikes that descend
to the shoulders. The neck and waist are adorned
with things or necklaces. The wood is dark and
The Bambara/Bamana is 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. The
Mande-speaking Songhai 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,
and reached its imperial maximum in the 1780s
under the rule of N’golo Diarra.
Their society is Mande-like overall, with patrilineal
descent and a nobility/vassal caste system. Their
complex history is echoed in the systematics of
indigenous art traditions. There are four main mask
forms, related to various secret societies. Other
forms include the famous Chi-Wara headcrest,
which was used to encourage good harvests, and
heavily encrusted zoomorphic ‘Boli’ figures.
Everyday items include iron staffs, door-locks,
wooden puppets and equestrian figures, which
double as accessories for male initiation ceremonies.
The Guan society is responsible for the maintenance
and use of Guandousou (queen) and Guantigui
(king) statues. Two of these figures are surrounded
by five guanyenni forms, which are typically
designed to represent the ideal values of femininity,
specifically fertility. The pieces were stored in
shrines and exhibited annually.
This is a striking piece of African art.