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Baga


Location: Coastal Guinea and Guinea-Bissau
Population: 45,000

Arts: The Baga have produced some of the most recognizeable and sought-after of all West African arts. This is despite the influx into West Africa over the last century of Islam, which has imposed severe limits on traditional animist ceremonies. Ironically, unlike many African cultures who fear reprisal from the mullahs, there has been a resurgence of sorts in traditional rites since their formal conversion took place in 1950. Baga art is primarily produced for funerals, and for the initiation of young men, and many of these remarkable works are of truly monumental size and beauty. These include large, complex headdresses, tall polychrome snake carvings, multi-layered drum-like pieces with figural superstructures, and charming 8-legged stools which resemble spiders.

The most famous of Baga artworks are the imposing "D'mba" headdresses, massive works with prominent noses and heads, enormous breasts, metal sheeting, and a four-legged design that allows it to sit on the ground when not in use. The D'mba rest on the shoulders of the dancers, who are covered by a cascade of raffia which hides their identity. D'mba ceremonies, which symbolize fertility, are danced to promote a good harvest of rice, and the performers are sterile women who are members of a secret society known as "Simo." The popular and highly-abstract Baga snake effigies, known as "bansonyi," are used during initiation ceremonies and for funerals of important elders. Though they can be over six feet tall, they are carved from light wood so that they can be carried on the shoulders of the dancers, pointing toward the sky. Like the D'mba, the snakes have a raffia skirt attached to fall down over the dancer. The bansonyi are carved with geometric designs on their surface, and then painted in a riot of polychrome colors. Though somewhat two-dimensional in design, the Baga snakes remain among the most coveted of all West African artforms. The Baga create a wide variety of tall, columnar, and quite colorful "statues" with bases and figures, which sit outside rounded Simo huts like sentinels. They are hard to define since they are so diverse in their construction, and are also quite rare and desireable. Baga stools, carved from heavy wood, are among the most recognizeable in all of Africa. They are rather plain, but have a dramatic set of 8 "legs" which hold up the seat, bulging outward beautifully, giving it a pleasing, rounded shape. There is another form of note, the "Anok" anthropomorphic "mask," which incorporates the shape of a bird's beak with human features. It has a distinctly "non-Baga" appearance, and has been attributed to the Landuma, but there is some evidence indicating its use in Baga Simo dances. Though the forms are limited, Baga art is prized by serious collectors.

History: The Baga migrated into their current location from the Upper Niger Basin during the 14th century. They were accompanied by a number of linguistically-related groups, like the Landuma and Temne. Though repeatedly invaded over the centuries, many of the Baga have managed to hold onto their traditional ways, and continue to produce colorful art. Today they are a mixture of traditionalists, Muslims, and Guinea nationalists, and their sculpture continues to charm visitors to museums and galleries worldwide.

 

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