About the Bambara Tribe
The Bambara or Bamana are found in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Senegal. They are descended from the Mande super-ethnic group through the Mandika people who were the founders of the Mali Empire. The peak of the Bambara Empire appeared in the mid 18th century and since then they have made the biggest Mande group in Mali.
Even though most Bambara practice Islam today, they used to be ancestor worshippers and most of their art forms were dedicated to religious rites. The Bambara society was organized into fraternities and sororities known as Tons. Apart from the Tons divided along gender lines, there are other societies providing social structure according to age and vocation.
The Bambara are an agrarian people, subsisting on the Savannah. Farming their land can be pretty difficult and to appeal to higher powers, their art features strong references to animals that are believed to promote farming and work ethics.
Bambara art comprises of masks, statues and reliquary figures. The reliquary figures are the least diverse and usually depict women and marionettes. Statues, on the other hand, are mostly dedicated to the fertility principle, gwan. Women looking for children would offer sacrifices at the shrines of gwan sculptures. The gwan statues usually come in groups and of different sizes.
A typical gwan statue collection will feature a central mother-and-child statue, the father and other adult male and female figures. Gwan statues are enshrined and taken out only during annual ceremonies. The differentiating style of the gwan statues includes arms separated from the body with the hands attached to the thighs, palms held forward and crested hairdo with braids falling to their breasts.
Bambara masks are more diverse and mask-making is where the Bambara sculptors excel. There are six male societies or jo in Bambara, each meant to lead boys into manhood. For each of these societies, there are masks. The lowest jo society is called ntomo and the highest is kore. Jo initiations were done every seven years and qualifying young men must have undergone six years of training and tribal education.
The ntomo stage has two classes of masks. These are made in different styles and they are meant for different purposes. One kind of ntomo masks usually bears an oval face with a thin mouth and a superstructure of horns (between four and ten) arranged like combs and covered in cowries or dried red berries. This mask is meant to confer on the young boys the discipline of controlled speech and the virtue of silence. The second kind of ntomo masks has a protruding mouth with a long, ridged nose and two horns between which is placed a human or animal figure.
Two other classes of related Bambara masks are the komo and kono masks. The komo society is regarded as the custodian of all Bambara tradition and its masks are of animal forms with open jaws. Komo masks are helmet masks and feature actual animal horns, bird skulls, feathers, teeth etc. In contrast, kono masks are simpler than komo masks and definitely more elegant. The design principles of both mask types are the same: they both feature elongated animal forms with long, open mouth. The functions of the komo masks exceed those of the kono. They are both used to enforce civic morality and in agricultural rituals but the komo is also used in funerals and for judicial administration of the tribe.
The tiji wara headdress mask is the most popular of Bambara masks and is regarded as one of the finest example of stylized African art. Tiji wara comes from the two Bambara words for work and animal. Therefore, it means working animal and features antelope heads with horns pointing out in vertical and horizontal directions. The tiji wara is associated with tribal cooperation to ensure good harvest and the celebration of the excellent farmer.
The tiji wara is worn and danced by masqueraders performing in male-female pairs interweaving the concepts of human and land fertility. The male antelope, representing the Sun wears a mane while the female antelope representing the Earth has straight horns. By leaping like antelopes, the dancers infuse life into the delicately carved faces of tiji wara masks to bring out a captivating natural beauty.
Generally, Bambara masks are expressive works of art, bearing some of the continent’s best crafted sculpture. The attention to details is highly commendable with fine patterns and perfect animal representations being hallmarks of the celebrated craftsmanship of a people who have a special relationship with the earth upon which they stand and thrive. To the Bambara, masks transcends art; they are also the culture and the life of the tribe.