Bamana artist carving a chi wara headdress
The Bambara of Mali are notable highly successful farmers, as they were when the first slave ships traveled the Atlantic from the sources of the Senegal and Gambia rivers to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana at the Mississippi Sound onto Ile Dauphine and on through Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain to Bayou St. Jean or to the Balise and up Mississippi River, to New Orleans in the early years of the 18th century.
The Bambara attributed their success to the lessons learned from a half-human, half-animal deity called chi wara, "working wild animal." Chi wara (or tsi wara), with his hooves and his mother's pointed stick, tilled the soil and turned wild grasses into grain. But because the people wasted the grain, chi wara returned to the earth. The farmers then created art and dance to recall him and his powers over nature.
These headdresses feature the antelope, giving visual form to important religious beliefs about fertility and growth. They were worn in dances at the beginning of the rainy season (or when a fallow field was re-seeded) to assure a good harvest. Dancers who wore these headdresses covered their bodies with long grasses and cloth. They went bent over using two canes, believing that if they stood upright, they would offend the deity. The dancers accompanied farmers to the fields, supervised the planting, and then returned to the village where they danced. The dance consisted of jumps, sudden leaps and turns reminiscent of the actions of the antelope.
Three different styles of chi wara headdresses have been associated with distinct geographic areas within Mali. The first is a vertical style in which the body and legs of the male antelope are small, but the mane, nuzzle and horns are elongated and elaborated. Its open work mane with a zigzag pattern is said to represent the course of the sun across the sky during the agricultural year. The female antelope in contrast is depicted simply as carrying a young on its back. This vertical style is typically found in the eastern parts of Mali (Segou region). The second is a horizontal representation of the antelope, generally more accurately showing the proportions of the animal. These are found in the northwest (Bamako region). The third type, from the southwest (Bougouni region), is highly abstract, generally smaller and included forms primarily of the antelope, but also of the aardvark and the pangolin (scaly anteater).