Creolizing Currents: Bambara

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.

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Generous assistance provided by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation.