This elongated brass-covered head is the core section of a marionette made by the Bozo people of Mali. It is generally reminiscent of F’ang works, and is also proportioned in a manner reminiscent of Giacometti or Modigliani. The “body” is a pole, adorned with plaques of brass and with a patina of age. This supports a long, lugubrious head with a T-bar nose and brows complex, pouting lips, inlaid eyes and a domed brow. The whole piece is covered with brass plated, attached by small studs and matching carefully at alledges. This process is especially visible on the forehead, with a vertical central seam flanked with horizontal stripes. Condition is excellent.
The Bozo are a small group (c. 150,000) related to the Bambara/Bamana people, but are understudied compared to their larger and more powerful neighbours. Their name means “bamboo house”, reflecting tjheir transient occupations long the River Niger, from which they make their living as fishermen. They speak a NW Mande language that is distinct from Bambara/Bamana, and divided into four sub-variants. Owing to the proximity of reliable Islamic historians, we know a considerable amount about their past, notably their founding of Djenne and Mopti in the 10th century as part of the Ghana Empire.
They are predominantly Muslim, although some “pure” animists and elements of traditional culture linger on as ritual asides. Possibly as a result of Islamic censure, their artworks are highly schematic, and lie within the realm of entertainment rather than adoration. Both the Bozo and the Warka (a closely-linked group) tend to cover their works with plates of metal, especially brass, although more recent aluminium versions are also known. Their repertoire includes large puppets (< 2m tall) called sogow, that can conceal the operator, as well as much smaller puppets and dance masks that are intimately associated with ceremonies associated with the arrival of the rains (June) and other fecundity-linked issues. The puppets usually depict symbolic people (i.e. ancestors) or mythical animals.
The totemic animal of the Bozo – Sigi, the buffalo – often appears, whose body represents the mighty Niger and whose horns represent the canoes from which the Bozo exploit its riches. He symbolises strength and the power of tradition, and is one of the many virtues and vices iconographically displayed. Others include women pounding millet, a crocodile, a mother-with-child, musicians, and a female dancer. These ride upon Sigi’s back, who dances in a slow manner to allow the smaller puppets to go through their motions: the women pound, the farmer hoes, the musicians play and the dancer twirls. The Bozo have many aquatically-themed sogow – including hippopotami, fish etc – and make appearances at Bamana masquerades. Masked dancers portray various characters including Ngofariman (the Mean Chimpanzee), Taasidoonin (Think a Little) – a sexy woman who dances in a teasing manner – and Bilanjan, a nocturnal bush-spirit.
While fairly large, this piece cannot be a sogo; it is therefore more likely to be one of the smaller puppets who ride on the back of Sigi or whichever sogo is involved. It may be a musician, farmer or fisherman, and is a remarkable piece of secular African art.