This dark and powerful mask has been attributed to the Bambara (or Bamana) people of Mali. It is stylistically ambiguous but appears to represent a monkey with exaggeratedly human features. The face is long and baboon-like, with a distinct snout, a domed skull and ears placed very laterally on the head. The nose, however, runs along the top of the snout and is decidedly human, as are the eyes and the rather neatly-arranged panelled hairstyle. The snout is further decorated with bands of keloid scarification. The whole piece is very dark in terms of colour, and the incised markings are comparatively pale.
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 Kore rituals involve a deconstructed animal head. Chiwara headcrests – which represent deconstructed antelopes – are distinct creations, and as such are usually considered separately.
There are various zoomorphic (including monkey) masks known for the Bamana, but their social significance is not known. Other tribal groups that have monkey iconography tend to associate them with mischief, intelligence and ancestors, although there is also a rather dramatic Baule form (Gebreke) that is charged with defense of villages. This version is rather lugubrious and it seems unlikely to be a light-hearted character. That said, it may have had a general role within one of the secret societies, or perhaps as an adjunct character in masquerades.
Whatever its purpose, this is a charming piece of African art.