This exuberantly abstract piece is a Chiwara (Ciwara, Chi-Wara, Tji-Wara) headdress made by the Bambara/Bamana group of Mali. It was originally attached to a basketware base, and worn with a raffia costume and danced in order to pray for a bountiful harvest. The piece sits on a small, flat base, with a small, angular cut-out body/legs format. The neck curves up and forwards in a graceful profile that is rendered as a broad, latticework hemi-ellipse. The head is near-vertical and plain, with the face rendered as a T-bar of forehead and nose. The horns are enormously long and curved at the tips. The piece is evidently male, as evidenced by a notable penis. The piece is unpainted, but has a glorious dark, glossy patina.
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 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 descended 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. There are four main mask forms, related to the n’tomo, Komo, Nama and Kore societies. 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. Everyday items include iron staffs, wooden puppets and equestrian figures; their sexually-constructed anthropomorphic door locks are especially well-known.
Chiwara headcrests are the greatest achievement of the Bamana people, in terms of conceptualization, composition and abstraction. They were controlled and danced by the Chi-Wara-Ton society, which is – rarely for the Bamana – a society of both men and women who are charged with blessing the harvest. The name “chiwara” means “laboring wild animal” and refers to a half-man, half antelope that was born of Mousso Koroni (a sky goddess) and an earth spirit in the form of a cobra. Chiwara then taught the Bamana how to farm, and is worshipped accordingly. The headcrests are designed to represent the roan antelope, in varying degrees of abstraction. There are various styles, simplified into vertical, horizontal and abstract: these refer to the general orientation of the head and “horns”: of the antelope. The only commonality between representations is the pair of high horns, a head, and a zig-zag motif that is believed to represent the passage of the sun from east to west. They are also gendered: the presence of a baby antelope and straight horns indicates that the latter is female, while male versions have bent horns and a phallus.
The shape of the body is designed to evoke the aardvark (who burrows into the soil as a good farmer should), the high horns resemble millet stalks, the penis of male figures always touches the earth and thus symbolizes fertility, the baby on the back of the female represents Chiwara’s carrying of humans in order to teach them, and the ensemble is worn by a dancer who also wears a large costume made from raffia stalks that symbolize flowing water and good harvests. They are danced in male-female pairs to combine their fertility to best advantage. The dancers interact in a very specific way, the female fanning the male as he dances, in order to spread his power through the community. The male then acts like an antelope – scratching at the earth etc – before being shown the appropriate way to farm land.
Different areas, carvers and workshops may produce widely variable final results that run the full gamut from relatively naturalistic to completely unrecognizable as anything connected with an antelope. Major regional variations include the Bougouni/Northern Style (abstracted multi-figural), the Bamako/Northern Style (specific horizontal style), the Segu/Northern Style (derived vertical style with cut-out triangular body motif) and the Sikasso style (with a thin, delicate, vertical form with a blunt, almost human face).
This piece is technically a Vertical/ Segu/ Northern region style, as evidenced from the cut-out, deconstructed form, high horns and elegant profile. However, it is also a truly superb example of one of Africa’s greatest indigenous art forms and a superb addition to any collection or sophisticated domestic setting.