I met Warren Robbins, founder and director emeritus of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art when I walked into his Capitol Hill office in 1993. I was there representing the congressional newspaper Roll Call to write an article about historic preservation of the neighborhood. I was smitten with his collection of African sculptures, headdresses, and door locks with animal characteristics crafted in wood. Robbins told me these were examples of work of the Bamana people of Mali in West Africa.
Years later, while compiling Warren Robbins' epistolary biography at the Robbins Center For Cross Cultural Communication, I learned from visiting diplomats from Senegal that the Bamana — as well as the Mandingo and Wolof of Mali — had been a factor in the development of French Colonial Louisiana from about 1719. They were called Bambara, Malinka and Diaulauf by the French colonials, the diplomats said.
On visits to New Orleans from Virginia where I lived from the 1980s, I learned that Alonzo Lansford's house, the Villa Meilleur in Faubourg Tremé, was being transformed into the New Orleans African American Museum. I had spent lovely times in this exquisite historic house and garden with the Lansfords, and I had featured the property and its complex history in Faubourg Treme and the Bayou Road, volume 6 of the Friends of the Cabildo series, New Orleans Architecture. So the building was of great interest.
Finally, it was an encounter in Morocco with President Léopold Senghor of Senegal that cemented my interest in the Bambara. I learned that Bambara captifs, many of them purchased by French ships' captains from their Mandingo captors, were sent to Louisiana from ports along the coast of Senegal at the mouths of the Senegal and Gambia rivers in the first half of the 18th century. I began to develop an idea that connected Warren Robbins' collection of Bambara abstract animal-based sculpture with the New Orleans African American Museum at the Meilleur house, where Bambara descendants doubtless lived and worked over the centuries. After all, the property is the site of an early brickyard where the earliest Bambara in Louisiana made bricks.
I had learned through Gwendolyn Midlo Hall's landmark research that most of the African people arriving in Louisiana in the French Colonial period were Bambara, with some Wolof and Mandingo, and a few Fon and Ewe. Shipped from Ile St Louis, Gorée, and Fort Arguin on the coast of Senegal and from Judah (Whydah, Ouidah) further south along the West African coast across the Atlantic they disembarked at Dauphin Island, Biloxi, or the Balise near the mouth of the Mississippi. Besides the parallel ports and rivers, Africa and Louisiana had crops in common, starting with rice and indigo. The Bambara had brought yams and okra as well as rice on the ships to Louisiana.
Some of these Bambara even spoke French, and French Colonial Governor Bienville requested that the French ships' captains find such men in French Colonial Africa to bring to Louisiana. Some of their descendants, even today, speak Creole French in New Orleans. Professor Alcée Fortier of New Orleans and Tulane University interviewed Bambara ex-slaves in the 1880s at plantations on the lower Mississippi relative to their seeming worship of animals and their animist spiritual view of the universe. The Bambara believed that all things in nature — humans, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, etc. — are invested with a soul or a spirit. Thus Bambara, often called Bamana today, were known as animists, a word with a root meaning soul. As animists, the Bambara did not, in the 17th and 18th centuries, respond to the movement of Islam in their region although Tombouctou (Timbuktu), nine miles north of the Niger River in the land of the Bambara, had become a center of Islamic learning with extensive libraries of manuscripts and learned translators by the 12th century.
The result of these varied co-incidences is this exhibition at the Villa Meilleur, now the New Orleans Museum of African American Art. Bambara pieces from Warren Robbins' and his colleagues' collections will be included in "Creolizing Curents: Bambara." The sculpture and art are supplemented by an educational complement of illustrations showing related ships and maps, Elliot Elisofon photographs, and engravings of ports, both in French Colonial Africa and in French Colonial Louisiana. New Orleans museums and libraries as well as French archives have provided images of early ships' manifests, notarial records, 18th century book plates, maps, and paintings related to the Bambara culture and history in French Colonial Louisiana.