TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

BAULE (also see related masks of Guro and Yaure)

The Baule people, known as one of the largest ethnic group in the country, have played a central role in twentieth-century Ivorian history. They waged the longest war of resistance to French colonization of any West African people, and maintained their traditional objects and beliefs longer than many groups in such constant contact with European administrators, traders, and missionaries. According to a legend, during the eighteenth century, the queen, Abla Poku, had to lead her people west to the shores of the Comoe, the land of Senufo. In order to cross the river, she sacrificed her own son. This sacrifice was the origin of the name Baule, for baouli means “the child has died.” Now about one million Baule occupy a part of the eastern Côte d'Ivoire between the Komoé and Bandama rivers that is both forest and savanna land. Baule society was characterized by extreme individualism, great tolerance, a deep aversion toward rigid political structures, and a lack of age classes, initiation, circumcision, priests, secret societies, or associations with hierarchical levels. Each village was independent from the others and made its own decisions under the presiding presence of a council of elders. Everyone participated in discussions, including slaves. It was an egalitarian society. The Baule compact villages are divided into wards, or quarters, and subdivided into family compounds of rectangular dwellings arranged around a courtyard; the compounds are usually aligned on either side of the main village street. The Baule are agriculturists; yams are the staple, supplemented by fish and game; coffee and cocoa are major cash crops. The importance of the yam is demonstrated in an annual harvest festival in which the first yam is symbolically offered to the ancestors, whose worship is a prominent aspect of Baule religion. The foundation of Baule social and political institutions is the matrilineal lineage; each lineage has ceremonial stools that embody ancestral spirits. Paternal descent is recognized, however, and certain spiritual and personal qualities are believed to be inherited through it. The Baule believe in an intangible and inaccessible creator god, Nyamien. Asie, the god of the earth, controls humans and animals. The spirits, or amuen, are enrowed with supernatural powers. Religion is founded upon the idea of death and the immortality of the soul. Ancestors are the object of worship but are not depicted.

Baule art is sophisticated and stylistically diverse. Non inherited, the sculptor’s profession is the result of a personal choice. The Baule have types of sculpture that none of the other Akan peoples possess. Wooden sculptures and masks allow a closer contact with the supernatural world. Baule statues are usually standing on a base with legs slightly bent, with their hands resting on their abdomen in a gesture of peace, and their elongated necks supporting a face with typically raised scarification and bulging eyes. The coiffure is always very detailed and is usually divided into plaits. Baule figures answer to two types of devotion: one depicts the “spiritual” spouse who, in order to be appeased, requires the creation of a shrine in the personal hut of the individual. A man will own his spouse, the blolo bian, and a woman her spouse, the blolo bla, which they carry around everywhere they go. The Baule are also noted for their fine wooden sculpture, particularly for their ritual figures representing spirits; these are associated with the ancestor cult. The Baule have also created monkey figures gbekre that more or less resemble each other. Endowed with prognathic jaw and sharp teeth and a granular patina resulting from sacrifices, the monkey holds a bowl or a pestle in its paws. Sources differ on its role or function: some say it intervenes in the ritual of divination, others that it is a protection against sorcerers, or a protective divinity of agrarian rites, or a bush spirit. The figures and human masks are elegant -- well polished, with elaborate hairdressings and scarification.

Masks correspond to three types of dances: the gba gba, the bonu amuen, and the goli. They never represent the ancestors and are always worn by men. The gba gba is used at the funerals of women during the harvest season. It celebrates beauty and age, hence its refined features. The double mask represents the marriage of the sun and the moon or twins, whose birth is always a good sign. The bonu amuen protects the village from external threats; it obliges the woman to a certain discipline; and it appears at the commemorations of death of notables. When they intervene in the life of the community, they take the shape of a wooden helmet that represents a buffalo or antelope and which is worn with a raffia costume and metal ankle bracelets; the muzzle has teeth which incarnate the fierce animal that is to defend the group. The very characteristic, round-shaped “lunar” goli is surmounted by two horns. It was borrowed from the Wan for a celebration adopted by the Baule after 1900. Celebrating peace and joy, they would sing, dance, and drink palm wine. In the procession, the goli preceded the four groups of dancers, representing young adolescents. The goli would be used on the occasion of the new harvest, the visit of dignitaries, or at the funerals of notables. Boxes for the mouse oracle (in which sticks are disturbed by a live mouse, to give the augury) are unique to the Baule, whose carvers also produce heddle pulleys, combs, hairpins, and gong mallets.

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