Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Headdress Of The Baga People



Headdress, 19th–20th century

Baga peoples; Guinea

Wood
H. 46 1/2 in. (118.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection
Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller
1979 (1979.206.17
This colossal wooden headdress, measuring nearly four feet in height, is known as D'mba among the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast. D'mba's flat, pendant breasts are a symbol of motherhood and reveal the selfless dedication with which she has nursed numerous children to adulthood. Her coiffure consists of intricately braided rows of hair and a high crest down the center. This hairstyle is not a characteristic of the Baga, but rather one of the Fulbe people, who inhabit the Futa Jallon mountains, where the Baga ancestors once lived. The coiffure serves as a reminder to the Baga of their origins in the Futa Jallon. The face, neck, and breasts of the bust are decorated with linear patterns: a horizontal line from the cheek to the ear, a curved line from the ear along the jawline, a line connecting these two lines, all ending at a circular line that surrounds the entire face. Often on each cheek, just below the eyes, there are two short carved lines—the mark of Baga ethnicity. Embellishments are sometimes added as well, including painted wooden ornaments attached to the ear or pendants attached to the nasal septum.

Unlike masked representations from other African cultures, which may represent ethereal spirits or ancestors, D'mba is not a "spirit," but instead is loosely described by the Baga themselves as simply an "idea." D'mba is an abstraction of the ideal of the female role in Baga society. She is honored as the universal mother and is the vision of woman at the zenith of her power, beauty, and affective presence. Although D'mba is not a spiritual being in the Baga sense of the term, nor a deity, she is a being of undeniable spiritual power. The Baga conceive of D'mba as a servant of sorts—inspiring young women with the strength to bear children and raise them to adulthood, inspiring young men to cooperative excellence in agriculture, and inspiring the ancestors to contribute toward the continuance of community well-being.
During performances, the massive headdress is worn with a costume of raffia and cloth. In the past, the D'mba masquerade was performed at least twice a year before the rainy seasons. D'mba would also appear to dance at festive occasions such as marriages and funerals, and in honor of special guests. In contemporary Baga culture, D'mba performances have not been as widely embraced as in the past, so they are rarely witnessed today.

The origins of the D'mba headdress, like many other aspects of Baga material culture, remain the subject of conjecture. Most Baga elders suggest that D'mba was not brought by their nomadic ancestors, but rather created after their arrival to their current home in Guinea's coastal region. Interestingly enough, the cloth shawl worn by D'mba during performances, usually dark indigo or black, has always been cotton cloth imported from Europe, never of African manufacture. In fact, it seems that many Baga masquerades developed in the twentieth century use European factory printed cloth for the costume.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

African Puppets - Bamana Marionette Figures


Masks and Puppets of the Village Association


Bamana Puppet Farmer
Bamana Puppet Farmer 
The village association (ton) comprises of female and male divisions and is organized according to age groups (flan-bolow).

One enters the ton after circumcision and leaves it at the age of about thirty-five. Every year the ton organizes a festival of theatrical performances in the village square. These include koteba and the puppets known as sogo bo in a succession of light-hearted sketches that satirize aspects of Bamana social and religious life. 

Prior to the public performances, ton members parade through the village streets accompanying masks (sogow) such as Ngon and Ntomo. Sogobaw (big beasts) resemble small mobile theaters with a head and a wood-frame body. Small puppets, expertly manipulated, emerge from the back of this "beast".

Traditions of the Bozo, Somono, Marka and Bambara


Twice a year, the Bozo, Somono, Marka and Bambara populations of Central West Mali perpetuate a long tradition of sogo (animal) mask dances, sometimes accompanied by jiri maanin (little wooden people). The purpose of these festivals, called Sogo bo (animal outings) or Tyeko (the thing of men) or Do bo (the manifestation of the mystery), is to enact original myths, legends, the cosmos and ancestors, as well as all the new things in the world. 

They also depict the psychology of the human character. The youth in the villages are responsible for performing the masquerades based on the information they learn from the elders.


Bamana Farmer and Goat Marionette
Bamana Farmer and Goat Marionette
The oldest Sogo bo characters are bush animals and they still enjoy a special place in the theater. During any performance it is not uncommon to see masquerades representing lions, bush buffalos, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, wild cats, antelopes, and powerful bush spirits. In these communities the bush is defined as the domain of men and it is the locus of power. 

The interpretation of the theater's bush animal characters are informed by beliefs and values associated with hunting and with hunters as men of action and society's heroes. It is the world of the hunter and the association of hunting with heroic behavior that young men in the youth association, the owners of the masquerades, choose to identify with, and to celebrate through the performance of these bush animal masquerades.

The repertoire that a troupe plays in any year underscores a fundamental principle of youth theater which gives a positive value to innovation and change. The dramatic content of the youth theater is concerned with exploring the interplay between unity and rivalry, between the elders and youth, between the collective and the individual, and between tradition and change. 

Each season a troupe will choose to play many of the same characters popularized by their fathers and grandfathers before them. But each new generation of young men is also charged to create new characters to rival those of their elders. While the community invests a high value in unity through the maintenance of tradition, it also recognizes that creative rivalry energizes these performances, in the same way that people understand the necessity for innovation and change in order to move the society forward.


Bamana Puppet Mother and Child
When you pull the strings,
the child raises up and down
 in the mother's arms.
Troupes creatively exploit the full spectrum of arts—puppet masquerades, dances, drumming, and songs—to construct the dramatic characters in the fictional world of Sogo bo. These performances are important sites for the exploration of the moral universe. Like folktales and other theatrical forms, these masquerade performances throw cultural values and social relationships into high relief and open them up for public scrutiny. Even though they are defined as entertainment, young men and women proceed with a seriousness of purpose, often mediated by wit and humor, to examine the nature of their world and their lived experiences. 

For generations, this theater has constituted one important public avenue through which young men and women have gained access to knowledge, instruction, and experience by commenting upon the critical beliefs and values within their communities.

References: The Sogow by Mary Jo Arnoldi in Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. New York: Museum of African Art - Mary Jo Arnoldi - Playing With Time - Art and Performance in Central Mali and Rand African Art


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Headrests (barkin) from the Boni or Somali people of Somalia


Headrests


Boni or Somali headrest (barkin)
Boni or Somali headrest (barkin)
Men in East Africa use headrests both as pillows and as indicators of status. This type of man's headrest is used by the Boni of northeastern Kenya and southern Somalia and by Somali nomads. Men's headrests generally feature a smaller base that makes them somewhat unstable to sleep on, while the rectangular bases of women's headrests are usually more stable. 

The small, easily unbalanced base has made the headrest an emblem of alertness and the ability to wake to action. Made of sturdy but relatively light wood, the headrests are used on beds and are carried by herdsmen, who also use them to rest while keeping an eye on their herds. Boni shepherds rest while standing on a single leg, with their head lying on the neckrest set on their shoulder. These neckrests symbolize vigilance because since their base is so small, the resting person could not fall asleep without falling over.

The patterns on Somali and Boni headrests probably reflect the Islamic influence in the region. Some scholars interpret the patterns and iconography as a "form of shorthand for a prayer," to ensure God's protection of the sleeper. Headrests also play an important role in the nuptial ceremonies of Somali nomads. On his wedding night, the groom places the tubash (a sum of money) under the bride's headrest. The morning after the marriage is consummated, the bride will use this money to purchase an amber necklace, the symbol of her new status.


Headrest  (barkin)
Headrest  (barkin)
The headrests are carved from a single piece of fine-grained wood known as hagar in Somali, or also yucub wood. The wood is usually left its natural color, but is sometimes painted red or black by its owner. They may be carved by the owner or commissioned from an artist.

Somali and Boni nomads make use of two types of headrests; one with a single cylindrical supporting column and one with a double column. It appears that the different styles are for men of different status, with the single-columned variety for young men and the double-columned variety reserved for elders. The more elaborate the headrest is, the higher the status is of its owner.

Subtle, curvilinear forms are combined with intricate, incised patterns in this exquisite headrest from eastern Africa. With a crescent-shaped upper platform, small circular or oval base, and two flattened supporting columns, is this style of headrest is found among the nomadic Somali of both southern Somalia and eastern Kenya.

Headrests are used by both Somali men and women while resting or sleeping. It is popularly believed that the headrest serves a protective function by elevating the head off the ground during sleep, thereby preventing any possible attack by snakes or scorpions. Men's headrests, such as this one, generally feature a smaller base that makes them somewhat unstable to sleep on, while the rectangular bases of women's headrests are usually more stable. 

Scholars suggest that this instability is purposeful as it prevents the 
user from falling into a deep sleep while guarding the herds at night. It is in this sense that the headrest itself has become a symbol of vigilance among Somali nomads. In this example, the surface decorations of both supports are identical and feature interlaced rope motifs on the top and bottom interrupted by a honeycomb-like relief in the middle. The patterns on this and many other Somali headrests probably reflect the Islamic influence in the region. Some scholars interpret the patterns and iconography as a "form of shorthand for a prayer," to ensure God's protection of the sleeper. 

Headrests also play an important role in the nuptial ceremonies of Somali nomads. On his wedding night, the groom places the tubash (a sum of money) under the bride's headrest. The morning after the marriage is consummated, the bride will use this money to purchase an amber necklace, the symbol of her new status.


The headrests are carved from a single piece of fine-grained wood known as hagar in Somali, or also yucub wood. The wood is usually left its natural color, but is sometimes painted red or black by its owner. Somali nomads also make use of another type of headrest with a single cylindrical supporting column. It appears that the different styles are for men of different status, with the single-columned variety for young men and the double-columned variety, as seen here, reserved for elders.

Boni headrest from Somalia
References- National Museum of African Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art