Creolizing Currents: Bambara

Mother & Child
Bamana People, Mali
Wood
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Sculptures of mother and child are relatively rare in the art of the Bambara peoples of Mali. Recent scholarship has linked these works with important cultural beliefs about fertility and childbearing. Annual celebrations of the Jo society were held to enable women to assure the birth of many children. This event included festivities and sacrifices but most importantly, the display of an array of wooden sculptures in which the mother and child, called gwandusu, held a central position. The sculpture, surrounded by others including male and female figures was intended to attract attention, focus the eye and direct the thoughts of participants. Gwan, translated into English, means hot, hard and difficult. Dusu means soul, heart, passion, character, courage, and anger. Together they represent a strong and powerful female. In the festival, the sculpture would have been decorated with beads, horns, belts, fabric and, perhaps, a hat. The importance of the mother is indicated by her seated position; a position of honor in Bambara society. The child in the arms of the mother also refers to the importance of the mother in the lives of her children. The child, in Bambara sculptures, is always shown in the arms of the mother, never held by the father.

The style of the gwandusu sculptures differs from other types of Bambara carvings. Her torso is elongated with flowing transitions between body parts. Her breasts curve downward and her large eyes with heavy lids look downward towards her child.

Hyena Mask, Sukuru
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, mirror
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Masks representing hyenas, monkeys and other animals are worn by young initiates during annual ceremonies of the Kore Society, a men's organization associated with agriculture. This mask represents a hyena, an animal seen as a cruel unclean scavenger, gluttonous and dangerous to society. The bulbous forehead suggests incipient knowledge. At this level, initiates are made aware of the quantity of knowledge they lack which they will gain as they rise through the succeeding levels of the society.

Male Tsi Wara Headdress
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, metal, red fabric
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Female Tsi Wara Headdress
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, metal, red fabric
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Horizontal Chi Wara with Human Head
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, metal
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Horizontal Chi Wara with Pangolin on Basket
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, metal, fiber
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Abstract Chi Wara with Fur
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, hair
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Horizontal Male Chi Wara
Bamana People, Mali
Wood
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Horizontal Female Chi Wara
Bamana People, Mali
Wood
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Chi Wara

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).

Large Iron Lamp, Fitinew
Bamana People, Mali
Iron
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Created by Mande blacksmiths, iron lamps played an important role in both secular and sacred events of the Bambara (Bamana) peoples of Mali. Big lamps were used to illuminate nighttime performances, ceremonies, weddings and celebrations.

The flattened cups were basins for oil made from the karite nut. A wick of twisted cotton was placed inside each cup and draped over the edge to be lit at the time of the event. It is said that the cups were to represent the human mouth and the wicks signified the human tongue. Several of the cups on this lamp have a spatula hanging from the end of a chain. The purpose of this feature probably is to extinguish the flames. The other notable feature of this lamp, having a relationship to Mande script and signs, are the three human figures that top the three highest cups.

In Bambara religious beliefs, both the mouth and the tongue are sources of the spiritual concept of Nyama. Nyama is the basic energy, force and power that resides in every human being. It has been called the "energy of action... the necessary power source behind every movement, every task." [McNaughton, p.l4] The head was regarded as the seat of intelligence. It, in turn, is supported by the hands, which convert thoughts to actions. While the representation of these human figures is abstract rather than realistic, the motif of horizontal limbs turned up at the elbow is a shape repeated in other parts of the lamp (such as the thin rods to which the spatulas are attached and the framework holding the cups). Thus this lamp, and others like it, makes reference again and again to the human form, for the Bambara believed that humanity is the reason for the existence of the universe.

But religion and philosophy were not the only context for the construction of lamps like this one. They also served secular purposes. One of the most interesting was to illuminate wrestling matches at night. Some of these lamps were said to contain 100 cups. Wrestling is a popular sport in West Africa. The matches were spectacles with musicians, magicians, poets and sorcerers. Much like our athletes today, a successful wrestler was accorded great fame and respect.

Small Iron Lamp, Fitinew
Bamana People, Mali
Iron
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Created by Mande blacksmiths, iron lamps played an important role in both secular and sacred events of the Bambara (Bamana) peoples of Mali. Big lamps were used to illuminate nighttime performances, ceremonies, weddings and celebrations.

The flattened cups were basins for oil made from the karite nut. A wick of twisted cotton was placed inside each cup and draped over the edge to be lit at the time of the event. It is said that the cups were to represent the human mouth and the wicks signified the human tongue. Several of the cups on this lamp have a spatula hanging from the end of a chain. The purpose of this feature probably is to extinguish the flames. The other notable feature of this lamp, having a relationship to Mande script and signs, are the three human figures that top the three highest cups.

In Bambara religious beliefs, both the mouth and the tongue are sources of the spiritual concept of Nyama. Nyama is the basic energy, force and power that resides in every human being. It has been called the "energy of action... the necessary power source behind every movement, every task." [McNaughton, p.l4] The head was regarded as the seat of intelligence. It, in turn, is supported by the hands, which convert thoughts to actions. While the representation of these human figures is abstract rather than realistic, the motif of horizontal limbs turned up at the elbow is a shape repeated in other parts of the lamp (such as the thin rods to which the spatulas are attached and the framework holding the cups). Thus this lamp, and others like it, makes reference again and again to the human form, for the Bambara believed that humanity is the reason for the existence of the universe.

But religion and philosophy were not the only context for the construction of lamps like this one. They also served secular purposes. One of the most interesting was to illuminate wrestling matches at night. Some of these lamps were said to contain 100 cups. Wrestling is a popular sport in West Africa. The matches were spectacles with musicians, magicians, poets and sorcerers. Much like our athletes today, a successful wrestler was accorded great fame and respect.

Iron Horse and Rider
(Part of an iron staff.)
Bamana People, Mali
Iron
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Door Lock with Horizontal Bar
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, metal
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Door Locks

As recently as 60 years ago. the houses in the villages of the Bambara in Mali were distinctive because of finely carved wooden door locks. These locks, ranging in size from 12 to 18 inches, depicted humans, animals or abstract forms. The forms on any particular lock reflected religious beliefs or legends of the community. Frequently, the locks were incised with signs or marks, either by carving or by burning with the hot edge of a knife blade. The marks were power symbols chosen to enhance the overall symbolism of the lock.

Mechanically, the locks consisted of two parts. The vertical element which was nailed to the door, and the horizontal element or bolt, that secured the door to the frame. The bolt typically had five parts that together resulted in a locking mechanism that was highly secure against those who didn't know how to use the key. But the importance of the lock had little to do with its physical complexity and strength. Rather, the power of the lock came from its magical content, whether real or imagined.

These door locks were intended to prohibit the entrance into the house of evil persons or evil spirits. In particular, the locks were one part of a widespread effort to control Nyale. Nyale is the god or life force that represents creativity and fertility and energy, but unless controlled results in chaos. The strength and complexity of the locks was reinforced by the perceived power of the forces of stability and calm to deal with any intruders. For example, the inverted triangular form at the base of the vertical pieces of these locks could represent a python's head. The python was regarded as a symbol of god and thus a potent guard against sorcery and magic.

Although few wooden doors locks are made today, the motives of double-lined chevrons or X's still appear on wood objects carved in Mali.

Door Lock with Horizontal Bar
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, metal
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Door Locks

As recently as 60 years ago. the houses in the villages of the Bambara in Mali were distinctive because of finely carved wooden door locks. These locks, ranging in size from 12 to 18 inches, depicted humans, animals or abstract forms. The forms on any particular lock reflected religious beliefs or legends of the community. Frequently, the locks were incised with signs or marks, either by carving or by burning with the hot edge of a knife blade. The marks were power symbols chosen to enhance the overall symbolism of the lock.

Mechanically, the locks consisted of two parts. The vertical element which was nailed to the door, and the horizontal element or bolt, that secured the door to the frame. The bolt typically had five parts that together resulted in a locking mechanism that was highly secure against those who didn't know how to use the key. But the importance of the lock had little to do with its physical complexity and strength. Rather, the power of the lock came from its magical content, whether real or imagined.

These door locks were intended to prohibit the entrance into the house of evil persons or evil spirits. In particular, the locks were one part of a widespread effort to control Nyale. Nyale is the god or life force that represents creativity and fertility and energy, but unless controlled results in chaos. The strength and complexity of the locks was reinforced by the perceived power of the forces of stability and calm to deal with any intruders. For example, the inverted triangular form at the base of the vertical pieces of these locks could represent a python's head. The python was regarded as a symbol of god and thus a potent guard against sorcery and magic.

Although few wooden doors locks are made today, the motives of double-lined chevrons or X's still appear on wood objects carved in Mali.

Applique Cloth with Lion
Fon People, Republic of Benin
Cotton fabric
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Fon Banners

The Fon peoples of Benin (in pre-colonial times called Dahomey) have a special tradition of textile art that reaches back 300 years. These works are cotton banners, some quite large, on which the symbols of the kings of Dahomey and other symbols of their political power were appliqued. The kings controlled the use and production of these works of art for the purpose of presenting themselves in splendor to the people. The banners were displayed on special occasions on rooftops, on pavilions, on large umbrellas and on hats worn by royalty.

The banners were created by family guilds that specialized in textile applique. The guilds maintained vast collections of visual images that a client could specify for a banner. A frequent subject matter for banners were the symbols of the twelve kings of Dahomey.

The banner was to be read from left to right and from top to bottom, beginning with the oldest, most ancient kings and ending with the last kings before the country was claimed by France. There were often many symbols for any particular king because the meaning of an image might reflect a distinctive characteristic of the king, such as his strength, or it might commemorate a specific event during the king's reign, or it might relate a magical story about the king.

The guild's artist would then design the composition, using the image against a dark or contrasting background. In terms of style, the images - birds, animals, people, weapons and, occasionally, plant life such as vines and trees and fruit - were simple, direct and minimal. They could be readily identified with the essence of the object. As such, they became symbols rather than detailed reproductions.

While the symbols for many of the kings were animals or birds or the head of a defeated enemy placed in a pot, the symbol for King Agadja was quite special. King Agadja ruled during the period when slaves from Dahomey were taken to Louisiana, that is, between 1719 and 1732. His symbol was a huge sailing ship, a European caravel boat.

Appliqued cloths made today in Benin and in the US continue to contain the simple, symbolic images of the older traditions. However, the works are less likely to contain the aggressive and war like images of the older royal messages.

Applique Cloth with Warrior
Fon People, Republic of Benin
Cotton fabric
Lent by the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication

Fon Banners

The Fon peoples of Benin (in pre-colonial times called Dahomey) have a special tradition of textile art that reaches back 300 years. These works are cotton banners, some quite large, on which the symbols of the kings of Dahomey and other symbols of their political power were appliqued. The kings controlled the use and production of these works of art for the purpose of presenting themselves in splendor to the people. The banners were displayed on special occasions on rooftops, on pavilions, on large umbrellas and on hats worn by royalty.

The banners were created by family guilds that specialized in textile applique. The guilds maintained vast collections of visual images that a client could specify for a banner. A frequent subject matter for banners were the symbols of the twelve kings of Dahomey.

The banner was to be read from left to right and from top to bottom, beginning with the oldest, most ancient kings and ending with the last kings before the country was claimed by France. There were often many symbols for any particular king because the meaning of an image might reflect a distinctive characteristic of the king, such as his strength, or it might commemorate a specific event during the king's reign, or it might relate a magical story about the king.

The guild's artist would then design the composition, using the image against a dark or contrasting background. In terms of style, the images - birds, animals, people, weapons and, occasionally, plant life such as vines and trees and fruit - were simple, direct and minimal. They could be readily identified with the essence of the object. As such, they became symbols rather than detailed reproductions.

While the symbols for many of the kings were animals or birds or the head of a defeated enemy placed in a pot, the symbol for King Agadja was quite special. King Agadja ruled during the period when slaves from Dahomey were taken to Louisiana, that is, between 1719 and 1732. His symbol was a huge sailing ship, a European caravel boat.

Appliqued cloths made today in Benin and in the US continue to contain the simple, symbolic images of the older traditions. However, the works are less likely to contain the aggressive and war like images of the older royal messages.

Equestrian Figure
Bamana People (Bambara), Mali
Wood, 20th Century
Lent by David Ackley

Bamana and Dogon equestrian figures reflect the prestige and power surrounding horses and thus their riders. Horses in the Bambara tradition, and elsewhere, are associated with royalty, masculinity and warriors. The horse was introduced to the Bambara by Moslems and quickly became the major symbol of male status. The owner of a horse was not only rich but also worldly, for horses were the best means of movement, long-distance communication, trade and warfare. See Sets, Series and Ensembles in African Art by George Nelson Preston, 1985.

Equestrian Figure
Bamana People (Bambara), Mali
Lent by David Ackley

Bamana and Dogon equestrian figures reflect the prestige and power surrounding horses and thus their riders. Horses in the Bambara tradition, and elsewhere, are associated with royalty, masculinity and warriors. The horse was introduced to the Bambara by Moslems and quickly became the major symbol of male status. The owner of a horse was not only rich but also worldly, for horses were the best means of movement, long-distance communication, trade and warfare. See Sets, Series and Ensembles in African Art by George Nelson Preston, 1985.

Shrine Figure, Jo Society
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, 20th Century
Lent by Gilbert Jackson

Puppet
Bamana People (Bambara), Mali
Wood, 20th Century
Lent by David Ackley

Youth organizations use puppets in theatrical performances to tell stories and satirize conventional customs.

Puppet
Bamana People (Bambara), Mali
Wood, 20th Century
Lent by David Ackley

Youth organizations use puppets in theatrical performances to tell stories and satirize conventional customs.

Door Lock
Bamana People (Bambara), Mali
Wood, 20th Century
Lent by Gilbert Jackson, Washington, DC

Door Locks

As recently as 60 years ago. the houses in the villages of the Bambara in Mali were distinctive because of finely carved wooden door locks. These locks, ranging in size from 12 to 18 inches, depicted humans, animals or abstract forms. The forms on any particular lock reflected religious beliefs or legends of the community. Frequently, the locks were incised with signs or marks, either by carving or by burning with the hot edge of a knife blade. The marks were power symbols chosen to enhance the overall symbolism of the lock.

Mechanically, the locks consisted of two parts. The vertical element which was nailed to the door, and the horizontal element or bolt, that secured the door to the frame. The bolt typically had five parts that together resulted in a locking mechanism that was highly secure against those who didn't know how to use the key. But the importance of the lock had little to do with its physical complexity and strength. Rather, the power of the lock came from its magical content, whether real or imagined.

These door locks were intended to prohibit the entrance into the house of evil persons or evil spirits. In particular, the locks were one part of a widespread effort to control Nyale. Nyale is the god or life force that represents creativity and fertility and energy, but unless controlled results in chaos. The strength and complexity of the locks was reinforced by the perceived power of the forces of stability and calm to deal with any intruders. For example, the inverted triangular form at the base of the vertical pieces of these locks could represent a python's head. The python was regarded as a symbol of god and thus a potent guard against sorcery and magic.

Although few wooden doors locks are made today, the motives of double-lined chevrons or X's still appear on wood objects carved in Mali.

Horizontal Male Chi Wara
Bamana People, Mali
Wood, hair, leather
Lent by Gilbert Jackson

Chi Wara

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).

Female Figure
Bamana People (Bambara), Mali
Wood, 20th Century
Lent by Asif Shaikh

Small figures are brought out from their shrines for public display at annual celebrations of the jo society, a sect associated with human fertility. A young girl who has been initiated into adulthood carries a figure as a fertility charm, during dance performances.

Bambara Marionette
Lent by Kitten and Mark Grote

Yayoroba represents the Bambara (Bamana) ideal woman and is carried in dances in praise of the woman who has risen above the others around her.

Bambara Marionette
Lent by Kitten and Mark Grote

The colonial marionette represents the warning of foreign powers invading the Bambara (Bamana) tradition. This would include the European as well as the Islamic influence. Performed as a warning to the young.

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