A Magnificent and Highly Important Baga Serpent, Republic of Guinea
Collected in situ by Hélène and Henri Kamer, 1957
Galerie Kamer, New York
Pierre Matisse, New York, acquired from the above on November 20, 1961
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, October 1962 - March 1967 (accession no. '4746')
Acquired by the present owner from the above on March 8, 1967
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, Joan Miró and Josep Llorens Artigas, November 5 - 30, 1963
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, Group Exhibition: Balthus, Butler, Calliyannis, Derain, Dubuffet, Dufy, Giacometti, Ipousteguy, MacIver, Matisse, Millares, Miró, Riopelle, Rivera, Roszak, Rouault, Saura, Stubbing, Tanguy, and African Sculpture, June - September/November, 1964
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, Group Exhibition: Balthus, Dubuffet, MacIver, Marini, Martin, Millares, Miró, Riopelle, Rivera, Saura, Stubbing, December 1966 - February 1967
Washington, D.C., National Museum of African Art, African Art in the Cycle of Life (inaugural exhibition), September 28, 1987 – March 20, 1988
New York, Museum for African Art, Exhibition-Ism: Museums and African Art, October 14, 1994 – March 5, 1995
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, November 19, 2002 – July 6, 2003
Roy Sieber and Roslyn A. Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life, Washington D.C., 1987, p. 53, fig. 15
Roy Sieber, "Opening September 1987: The National Museum of African Art," African Arts, Vol. XX, No. 4, August 1987, p. 35
Warren M. Robbins and Nancy I. Nooter, African Art in American Collections, Washington D.C., 1989, p. 143, fig. 243
Alisa LaGamma, Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, New York, 2002, p. 58, fig. 23
The magnificent Baga Serpent from the Dinhofer Collection was one of eight serpent figures collected in situ by Hélène and Henri Kamer at the occasion of their only field trip to Guinea in 1957. Several serpent figures from this group are today in major institutional collections, including the Musée du Louvre, Pavillon des Sessions, Paris (accession no. '71.1989.49.1', formerly Musée de l'Homme, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jacques Lazard, 1989), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession no. '1978.412.339', The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1964), and a third in The Menil Foundation, Houston (accession no. 'V 909', formerly John and Dominique de Menil Collection, acquired from Galerie Kamer, 1963).
II. Cultural Origin
The Baga people live along Africa's western Atlantic coast in what is today the Republic of Guinea. Oral traditions recall how the ancestors of the Baga and of peoples of related cultural heritage – Pukur, Bulunits, Landuma, and Nalu – were driven out of their homeland in the highlands of the mountainous Fouta Djallon region in the interior of Guinea. According to this tradition, the Baga were expelled by the Islamic Fulbe people because of their refusal to convert to Islam, and also because their farming lifestyle was incompatible with the destructive cattle-herding practices of the intruders. Written history and archaeology confirm the historic validity of these accounts and place the beginning of the Baga Diaspora sometime before the fifteenth century. See Lamp (1996: 49 et seq.) for further discussion.
The Baga brought their sacred masks with them to the coast, among them a headdress representing the divine being a-Mantsho-na-Tshol (Lamp 1996: 52). In her discussion of the Dinhofer Baga Serpent at the occasion of the exhibition Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, LaGamma (2002: 59) explains: "All Baga migration histories trace their artistic traditions back to Fouta Djallon and affirm that they brought sacred masks with them. Among these was a serpent spirit headdress called a-Mantsho-na-Tshol, which is credited with guiding the ancestors toward new lands and protecting them by inspiring fear in outsiders [...]. The spiritual force represented by a-Mantsho-na-Tshol, which has been translated as 'master of medicine,' is greatly feared by the Baga and their cultural relatives and reigns supreme. Its primary physical manifestation is a brilliantly colored, larger-than-life aquatic serpent resembling a boa constrictor."
The serpent as imagery source for a-Mantsho-na-Tshol relates to an archetypal myth found along the Guinea coast at the center of which is the serpent spirit Ninkinanka. Lamp (1996: 77) remarks: "Ninkinanka (the name has many variants) is widely honored as the spirit who gives rain, bestows riches, and brings children to the infertile. He exacts a hefty price from those who profit from his aid. Ninkinanka appears in the form of a serpent resembling the boa constrictor, which is found abundantly in the swamps. His appearance, however, is extraordinary: larger than the boa, brightly colored, with gold covering the head. As a youngster he is said to live in a large tree in the forest, as an adult he is said to live in the water. Ninkinanka is the rainbow. 'After having drunk the water of the sky, he descends again and buries himself in the earth: the water that he [the rainbow] has drunk comes out again at the river sources' (Appia 1943b: 41)."
In this context, the Baga Serpent figures can be interpreted as an incarnation of the spirit a-Mantsho-na-Tshol in the form of Ninkinanka, an archetypal image which the Baga encountered upon their arrival at the coast. A merger of water and earth spirits, Baga Serpents can therefore be understood as metaphors for the highlands and the coast and a synthesis between the present and the past of Baga history.
III. The Function of the Serpent Headdresses
Each Baga subgroup and each village has its own account of the historical migration, describing the origin in Fouta Djallon, the itinerary, and often the names of individuals who led them. These accounts played a preeminent role in the hierarchic organization of Baga society and continue to the present day. Villages are divided into two to four sections, sometimes called "tribes" among the Baga themselves. They are ranked according to the order in which the respective ancestors are said to have arrived from Fouta Djallon. Each section is subdivided into five or six clans, ranked in the same manner. The clan of the founding ancestor of section or village is preeminent. See Lamp (1996: 65) for further discussion.
The Serpent Headdresses are clan insignia, each representing one section of a village (Lamp: 1996: 80). As incarnations of the spirit a-Mantsho-na-Tshol, they appeared "at the end of the first level of the initiation for boys and girls among certain Baga subgroups, and just before the actual circumcision at the beginning of the boys' initiation among others. In this context the headdress was sometimes identified as rainbow, which the Baga and their neighbors associate with the beginnings and endings, life and death, and the continuation of lineage – all essential themes of the initiation cycle" (Petridis 2003: 55).
As to the challenges of performing while wearing the tall figure, Lamp (1996: 83) elucidates: "Sometimes but not always there are nail holes or grooves in the base [as the case with the Dinhofer Baga Serpent], indicating some way of securing the headdress to an armature. But it is hard to explain how such a tall vertical column could be secured by simply tying or even nailing the small basal support to anything. The evidence suggests that the main support for these headdresses was a cylindrical receptacle in the top of a conical armature worn on the dancer's head. This and some kind of reinforcement, such as nailing, pegging, or wrapping with cloths and twine at the base of the column, would have aided the skillful dancer; but rigorously careful balance would still have been the essential force against gravity."
IV. Artistic Placement of the Dinhofer Baga Serpent
The main stylistic features of Baga (and related peoples') Serpent figures are 1) the reverse echoing of curved elements around a vertical axis, and 2) the surface decoration with interlinked diamond-shapes in relief, usually highlighted with red, white and dark pigments.
Regarding the sculpture, most Baga Serpents are carved in a more or less diamond-shaped cross-section (the only notable deviation being a figure with oval front in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, accession no. '70.2003.27.1', formerly Jacques Kerchache Collection) and a flaring oval abdomen leading to a tapering neck surmounted by pyramidal head balancing on its tip. Cf. Robbins and Nooter (1989: 142-143, figs. 243-248); Lamp (1996: 78-79, figs. 52 a and b); Philipps (1995: 476, fig. 5.139); RMN (2000: 69); Brüderlin (1997: 277).
Baga Serpents vary significantly in size, the smallest measuring around 55 in. (140 cm) in height and the largest up to 100 in. (254 cm). As the challenge of balancing the headdress (see supra) increases with the figure's height, most of the tall sculptures were carved to enable the dancer to keep the center of gravity close to their vertical axis. As a consequence, the carver emphasizes the frontal view and extends the serpent's abdomen and head to the sides while at the same time reducing the figure's curvature in profile. Cf. the Serpent figures in the Musée du Louvre, Pavillon des Sessions, Paris (accession no. '71.1989.49.1'); Rietberg Museum, Zurich (Lamp 1996: 78-79, figs. 52 a and b); Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (RMN 2000: 69); and Fondation Beyeler, Basel (Brüderlin 1997: 277).
Correlatively, the choice of a shorter body allows the artist to add a curvature in profile, with the Serpents' bulbous abdomen curving dramatically backwards from the point of greatest extension, leading to a slender neck surmounted by a head of inversed triangular shape. The backward curve is sometimes so extreme that the upper abdominal section of the serpent turns into horizontal position, allowing the artist to introduce a second, horizontal axis. For two superb examples cf. one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession no. '1978.412.339'), and another in The Menil Foundation, Houston (accession no. 'V 909').
The Dinhofer Baga Serpent, with its rhythmically back and forward curving body in profile and its elegant hourglass shape in frontal view is a unique merger of the aforementioned two qualities. By extending the massive head to the front, the artist added a counterweight to the backward curving body, keeping the center of gravity above the figures' base and allowing for an extreme curvature.
While the surface decoration of the Dinhofer Baga Serpent, an interlinked diamond-shape pattern in relief highlighted with red, white and dark pigment, is classical and can be found on other serpents, a special feature is the design of the face with two triangles of nearly Pythagorean outline and a circular eye mirrored by the figure's frontal ridge. This feature closely relates to the aforementioned figure in the Musée du Louvre (accession no. '71.1989.49.1') and another small serpent in The Cleveland Museum of Art, comparable also for the elegant tapering of the neck.