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Africa Direct

Bamana (old name "Bambara")

Location: Central Mali
Population: 2.5 million

Arts: Important forms include large, abstract female "jonyele" statues of monumental proportions; masking traditions for a variety of occasions, with numerous styles and materials, including the highly-prized and gloriously abstract "chi wara/tji wara" headdresses, "ntomo" masks with their distinctive vertical "horns,"; "boli" sculptures, stylized animal-shaped figures made from wood, with layers of soil mixed with blood; and numerous other forms, from iron staffs and figures to impressive wooden door locks.

The artistic diversity of the Bamana is without doubt one of the most astounding, and confounding, of all West African groups. It is interesting that perhaps their closest rivals in complexity are their neighbors to the north and east, the Dogon, with whom they share certain stylistic similarities. Complex religious, funerary, initiation, and agricultural rites have resulted in an enormous pantheon of ritual objects. When collectors think of Bamana, the image of a "chi wara" often leaps to mind. These stunning, zoomorphic headdresses, danced during the planting of crops, employ the carved head and horns of antelopes, as well as zig-zag, open-work designs, reportedly representing the path of the sun. A basketry, cap-like structure is attached to the bottom so that it can be worn. Other recognizable masks are not as well understood, and their use reflects the mind-boggling complexity of the predominantly animist Bamana religion. Among these are the animal-form masks, often quite abstract, used in the "kono" and "kore" societies. One will see hyenas, bush antelopes, and other beasts depicted in these fascinating masks. Some masks are more naturalistic, though still highly-stylized, and are similar to Dogon masks of similar construction. Also well-known are the "ntomo" masks, with their numerous vertical projections on the top of the head. These masks are often decorated with colored string and cowries, and are danced for young boys prior to their initiation. The Bamana are also known for their "jonyele"statuary. These large statues, usually female, but sometimes hermaphroditic, feature exaggerated volumes, including large conical heads and breasts. They are kept in shrines for most of the year, but are brought out for display and handling at the end of initiations. The best of these "dyo" statues are among the most beautiful in all African art. In addition to masks and formal statues, the "boli" zoomorphic figures are also famous. These bizarre creations begin with small wooden carvings which are "built-up" over time by liberal applications of dirt, which has been mixed with animal blood, alcoholic drinks and other substances. They are used as receptacles for evil spirits, but are fragile and very hard to find intact. Bamana blacksmiths are skilled at ironworking, which they concentrate on after the harvest. They forge staffs as well as equestrian figures, which are used for "dyo" society rituals and also for funerals. Like their neighbors the Dogon, the Bamana also craft beautiful wooden door locks, given to young brides to ensure fertility.

History: The genesis of the Bamana as a definable culture can be traced back to the 17th century, though archaeological evidence hints that they could be much older. They are of Mandinke origin and today are the largest culture in Mali. The zenith of Bamana culture occured during the late 18th century during the reign of N'golo Diara, who conquered the Peul tribe and occupied the important cities of Timbuktu and Djenne. They remained powerful until conquered by the French in 1892. Recently, like many African cultures, they have been affected by Islamic settlers from the east. Though they still consider themselves animists, many villagers now practice a hybrid combination of both "religions." This has allowed these competing cultures to coexist peacefully.


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