This striking piece is a female Dyonyeni figure from the Bamana group of Mali. It is an exceptionally impressive example. It has short, flexed legs with a protruding posterior, a long torso, long arms with hands turned outwards, and a long neck supporting an oval head with cut-away features, sporadic polychromy and – unusually – flowing hair rendered as cut-out pendulous braids on either side of the face. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the piece are the enormously protuberant, geometrical breasts that jut anatomically from the chest and are glossy from extended manipulation, as is much of the rest of the figure.
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.
They have a very complex caste-based social system, while age, sex and occupation groups are also classed to reflect their social importance. This complex structure is echoed in the systematics of indigenous art traditions. 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, related to the n’tomo, Komo, Nama and Kore societies. Heavily encrusted zoomorphic Boli figures serve an apotropaic function, while Guandousou, Guantigi and Guanyenni figures, that are used by the Gwan secret society to promote fertility and social balance. This piece is a Dyonyeni figure, used by the Dyo secret society to celebrate the end of initiation ceremonies; they were handled, danced with, then placed in the centre of a ceremonial circle. Dyonyeni are notable for their somewhat impactive, geometric composition, unlike the rather linear appearance of pieces associated with the Gwan society ceremonies.
The carving, patination and presence of this piece cannot be faulted. This is a beautiful and important piece of African art.