Off the shore of Guinea Bissau lie about thirty islands that comprise the Bijago archipelago. The Bijago, now numbering over 9,000, are known from early chroniclers' accounts for their daring raids on shipping along the African coast using huge canoes. The economy of the archipelago is based on the cultivation of rice, on palm oil, and on fishing. The society is highly structured by means of institutions such as matrilinear clans, the council of elders, age classes, and the priestess. Age groups cover about seven levels among the males from infancy to old age. Martial virtues were cultivated by an age-set system that associated young men with powerful beasts of the sea and land. The Bijago society continues to practice its many religious rituals. Among these, male initiations, which today may not exceed two months, but formerly ran over several years, and the women’s, which characteristically consist of offering access to adult status for boys who have died before being initiated. This is a recuperative initiation, performed by women who are possessed by the spirit of the deceased.

The sculptor is a voluntarily engaged artisan who, through his periodic activity in connection with ceremonies of initiation and worship, is familiar with numerous secrets. Each villager may sculpt initiation masks, head decorations, statuettes, vessels, and so on. The heaviest masks are worn by the age group that is not yet considered adult. These represent, in a realistic manner, marine animals, sawfish, hippopotami, sharks, or wild oxen. The dancers imitate these dangerous animals that symbolize beings that are still untamed, as they have not been initiated. Although Bijago figures can be realistic or abstract, they have a head with a pointed chin, a flattened face with rounded eyes and semi-circular ears. These iran figures are believed to be possessed by divinities and have many functions – they serve as the focus of divination ceremonies, as protectors of households against curses and as healers. Kept in small sanctuaries or in special places in houses, these figures are offered sacrifices and libations, which create a thick patina on the surface.

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