This striking mask of a ram was made by the Bambara/Bamana people of Mali. It is made from iron, which lends a certain austere solemnity to the deconstructed composition. The face is short and broad across the cheekbones, narrowing to a pointed snout and a domed top of the head. The eyes are rendered as rather threatening-looking slits; the only other details on the face are the nostrils and a series of incised lines across the snout towards the nose. The ears protrude sharply from the top one third of the head, and the horns overarch these and reach around towards the front of the face. It has a dark, oxidised patina.
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. Iron figures are used for divination, and are placed beneath trees or near graves to capture or otherwise countenance the spirits of the deceased. Metal masks are not usually described in collections of Bamana art, but it seems likely that they are associated with this latter tendency, or that they are symbols of office in one of the four secret societies (N’tomo, Komo, Nama and Kore) that generally use more conventional masks.
Whatever its significance, this is a surprisingly empowered piece of art, and further demonstration, were it required, of African artists’ sculptural skill. This is an impressive and dynamic piece of African art.