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The Bamana (Bambara) Tribe
Numbering 1.9 million, the Bamana are distributed over regions that comprise villages placed under the authority of one family, whose head, the fama, representing the founder, enjoys considerable powers. He also plays a primary role in the agrarian rituals.
In 1940, archeologists discovered the traces of an earlier kingdom and found terra-cotta figures that were dated through thermoluminescent tests to around the year 1000. These terra-cottas are proof of a long tradition of sculpture; the first wood figures date back to the fourteenth century.
The Bamana believe in the existence of spiritual forces which are activated by individuals, who are capable of creating an atmosphere of harmony, prosperity, and well-being. The Bamana have a very complex cosmology. Initiation takes place within the men's associations, which are more or less active depending on the village: the n'tomo, the komo that directs the life of the community; the nama, the komo that regulates morality violations; and the koré and the tyi wara, which organize young farmers. These societies, run by ancestors, act in political, economic, and medical capacity and exercise social control over the community.
In the south of the Bamana region, the dyo association welcomes men and women, but initiation is shorter and less difficult for the latter; initiation for men lasts for seven years and ends with their symbolic death and their rebirth. It terminates in great masked feasts in which the newly initiated participate, going from village to village. The initiates are divided into groups, and the sons of blacksmiths dance in the presence of statues called nyeleni - upright female figures with wide, flat shoulders, standing on small circular -bases. Their cone-shaped breasts project frontally. (K. Ezra, 1986) During the feasts of dyo and the ritual of the gwan, linked to fertility, seated figures are exhibited. Statues of a woman with a child appeared on the market in the 1950s. Kept on the shrines throughout the year, the figures were cleaned, oiled, decorated with clothing and beads, and placed in groups of from two to five pieces. Naturalistic in style, they are of larger dimensions than the majority of Bamana sculpture. The bodies are massive, sculpted in the round, with wide shoulders, the features of the face treated with a sweetness and care for detail. In the same style, representations of musicians and of lance-carrying warriors are found. These statues illustrate the qualities that the future initiates must have: beauty, knowledge, and power. Each figure is "explained" to the initiates and conveys the vital force that contributes to the cohesion of the village. (K. Ezra)
During the agrarian feasts of the tyi wara association, farmers wear headdresses in the shape of an antelope, which represents the mythical character who taught them how to cultivate the land. In order to obtain an abundant harvest, they dance at the time of planting and harvesting by imitating the steps of the antelope. The horn is supposed to be the symbol of the millet's growth.
The komo association, run by the blacksmiths, welcomes all male adolescents after their circumcision. It has a mask characterized by a huge mouth and antelope horns to which various elements are added, such as animal jaws. The mask, worn only by blacksmiths, "dances" in front of the members of the komo. Its disquieting appearance evokes the bush, and its dangers and its force are such, they say, that it can kill an adversary.
Each association has its own masks, headdress crests, and marionettes. These masks appear at times of celebration: at weddings or inaugurations of a market or under other pretexts. With the help of music, poetry, and history as told by the griots, these celebrations are both a diversion and a reminder of the social values of the Bamana. For a young boy, dancing at the time of a celebration is an opportunity to show his personal abilities and to acquire prestige. But he will first have to prove his skill and obtain authorization from the elders to appear in public, which may subsequently be refused if his first performance is judged to be mediocre.
The Bamana sculpt lovely figures, less naturalistic than their maternity figures-statuettes representing twins, and doorlocks. Honored and kept in the village sanctuary or at its outskirts, the boli is an object whose magic ingredients are hidden in the center of a mixture of clay, wood, tree bark, roots, horn, jawbones, or precious metals. It may have human strength or assume the strength of a hippopotamus. It is handled only by the chief or a religious dignitary; it is "nourished" on blood and millet beer poured into a tube that goes all the way through it. (S. Brett-Smith.)
The complex symbolic system of the Bamana is reflected in its abundant artistic output, linked to ritual functions and with varying aesthetic qualities.
S. Brett-Smith, "The Poisonous Child," in RES, no. 6, 1983. G. Dieterlen, Essai sur la Religion Bambara (Paris: Presses Universitaires Fran@aises, 1951). K. Ezra,A,HumanldealinAfrica,nArt:BamanaFig,urativeSculpture(Washington,D.C.: National Museum of African Art, 1986). R. Goldwater, Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan (New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, 1960). P. J. Imperato, Buffoom, Queens, and Wooden Horsemen (New York: Kilima House Publishers, 1983). P. McNaughton, Secret Sculptures of Komo: Art and Power in Bamana Initiation Associations (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Working Papers in the Traditional Arts, no. 4).