This imposing mask depicting a long-faced human with an enormous comb-like coiffure was made by the Bambara/Bamana people of Mali. The head is tall and thin, with a pointed chin and a geometric T-bar arrangement of the brows and the long, pointed nose. The forehead is domed, and decorated with incised hatched scarifications that are also present on the cheeks. The eyes are small and circular, and with the high cheekbones, lend a rather aggressive expression to the face. The forehead also bears a tall, slender head-and-neck of an antelope, with incised details. The back of the head bears a 5-pronged comb-like coiffure that, along with the antelope head, essentially doubles the height of the entire mask. The apices of the antelope’s horns are decorated with bundles of natural fibre.
The Bambara/Bamana are one of the largest groups in Mali (about 2.5 million) and lives in a savannah grassland area that contrasts strongly with the Dogon heartland. Their linguistic heritage indicates that they are part of the Mande group, although their origins go back perhaps as far as 1500 BC in the present-day Sahara. They gave rise to the Bozo, who founded Djenne in an area subsequently overrun by the Soninke Mande (<1100 AD). Their last empire dissolved in the 1600s, and many Mande speakers spread out along the Nigeria River Basin. The Bamana empire arose from these remnant populations in around 1740. The height of its imperial strength was reached in the 1780s under the rule of Ngolo Diarra, who expanded their territory considerably.
Their society is Mande-like overall, with patrilineal descent and a nobility/vassal caste system that is further divided into numerous subvariants including the Jula (traders), Fula (cattle herding), Bozo (indentured slaves) and Maraka (rich merchants). Age, sex and occupation groups are classed to reflect their social importance. This complex structure is echoed in the systematics of indigenous art traditions. Sculptures include Guandousou, Guaitigi and Guanyenni figures – that are used to promote fertility and social balance – while heavily encrusted zoomorphic Boli figures serve an apotropaic function, and curvaceous dyonyeni sculptures are used in initiation ceremonies. Everyday items include iron staffs, wooden puppets and equestrian figures; their sexually-constructed anthropomorphic door locks are especially well-known. There are four main mask forms. The N’tomo society has the best-known form, with a tall, face topped by a vertical comb structure. The Komo society uses an elongated, demonic-looking mask with various animal parts arranged into a fearsome zoomorphic form that is worn atop the head. The Nama society uses a mask that is based around an articulated bird’s head, while the little-known Kore rituals involve a deconstructed animal head. Chiwara headcrests – which represent deconstructed antelopes – are distinct creations, and as such are usually considered separately.
This is clearly an excellent example of an N’tomo mask. However, the addition of the antelope is unusual. In N’tomo masquerades the masks are usually used during dances, and are often gendered in what is believed to be an ancestor/ancestress relationship. In the current case, the presence of the antelope may be a sculptor-specific mannerism, or, more likely, it refers to the Chi-Wara-Ton society. Their headcrests, which are highly abstracted, are named “chiwara” for “labouring wild animal” and refers to a half-man, half antelope that was born of Mousso Koroni (a sky goddess) and an earth spirit in the form of a cobra. Chiwara then taught the Bamana how to farm, and is worshipped accordingly. This is clearly not a Chi-Wara headcrest, but it may be related in some way to the society, or this fundamental belief.
Whatever its purpose, this is an impressive piece of African art.