This is a classic Bamana Female Figure from the Bougouni region of Mali. Finely carved figures such as this represent a beautiful young woman, a maiden. She is identified as being a Jonyeleni, a member of the Jo society, a woman's and men's initiation society among the Bamana. Young women will carry sculptures such as this from village to village indicating that they are no longer children but mature women ready and available for marriage. This takes place on a seven year cycle of initiation of boys and girls into this level of Jo Society membership. The sculptures carried by the young women serve as paradigms of beauty and well being reflecting the physical attributes of ideal beauty that the Jonyeleni reflects to others. This idealization of beauty is reflected in the scarification and body markings as well as her stylized coiffure and the jewelry and clothing attached to the figure to enhance their attractiveness. This well carved figure also characterizes the essence of womanhood and of social cohesion that results from the order and structure of the Jo woman's society. The Jonyeleni figure represents the aesthetic ideal of youthful beauty allied to the characterization of an ideal society of order and structure.'
For examples and more information, see BAMANA-THE ART OF EXISTENCE IN MALI, edited by Colleyn.