This exceptional mask was made by the Bambara/Bamana people of Mali. The face is typically elongated, with a pointed jaw and a steeply-domed head. The face is commensurately long and slender, and is carved with extreme refinement. The eyes are in the slit semi coffee-bean format, pressed against a long, deep and narrow nose that runs almost half the mask’s height. The mouth is small, with the perfectly symmetrical teeth exposed. The cheeks are smoothly modelled around to the sides of the head, the lines of which are emphasised by an extraordinary four-part plaited hairstyle that frames – in the rear – further textured wood denoting cornrow braids. The rendering of the plaits is phenomenal in its delicacy. The virtuoso display of carving is accentuated by the beautiful glossy use 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. 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. Members of the Jo and Gwan societies are also believed to have worn such pieces, but the exact systematic are not fully understood. Chiwara headcrests – which represent deconstructed antelopes – are distinct creations, and as such are usually considered separately.
This mask, however, poses something of a quandary as it does match any of these descriptions. In crude terms, it is perhaps most like the N’tomo society mask as it is a human face, and not an animal or a bird, or abstracted. Likewise, the Gwan and Jo societies have their own somewhat secret masks, and the full variability of mask production in pre-contact Bambara society is yet something of a mystery. What is certain, however, is that many Bambara masks are made with function as a main priority, and this mask is evidence that their aesthetic potentialities were genuinely superb. This is the finest such piece that we have seen, and it would be a major addition to any serious collection.