Baule Seated Female Figure, Ivory Coast
- wood, glass beads
- Height: 17 3/4 in (45.1 cm)
Henri and Hélène Kamer (Leloup), Paris and Cannes, acquired from the above in 1958
Morris J. Pinto, Paris and Geneva, acquired from the above in the 1960s
Jennifer Pinto-Safian, New York, received as gift from the above
Lance and Roberta Entwistle, London, acquired from the above
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on February 3, 1998
Hamline University Art Galleries, Saint Paul, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, December 2, 2005 – February 11, 2006
Susan M. Vogel, Baule: African Art Western Eyes, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 61
Susan M. Vogel, "Tribal Arts," Art and the Individual, Vol. IV, No. 3, Winter 1997, p. 47, fig. 4
Frank Herreman, Icons of Perfection: Figurative Sculpture from Africa, Saint Paul, 2006, p. 28, cat. 12
Frank Herreman, "Icons of Perfection: Some Thoughts on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Function in African Sculpture", Tribal Art, Vol. X, No. 3, Spring 2006, p. 93, fig. 3
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Since the first publication of several Baule sculptures in Carl Einstein's seminal book Negerplastik in 1915 (see plates 53-57, 60, 89, and 93-95), Baule art has been at the core of Western appreciation of African art. The Baule style is seen as one of the canonic African art traditions and its art historical significance is rivaled only by few other cultures such as the Fang (Gabon), Senufo (Ivory Coast), Kongo (Western DRC) or Luba/Hemba (Eastern DRC).
Vogel (1997: 26 and 28) notes: "While the relative naturalism and consummate workmanship of Baule objects were praised at the outset, today these objects are appreciated for their subtle rhythms and a beauty that stops short of sweetness. To the Western eye, an essence of Baule style is a balanced asymmetry that enlivens while suggesting stability and calm. [...] To an art historian, the most consistent feature of Baule art, and one expressed across the wide variety of Baule object types, is a kind of peaceful containment. Faces tend to have downcast eyes and figures often hold their arms against the body, so that Westerners might feel that the mood of much classical Baule art is introspective."
II. Statuary for Trance Diviners
As LaGamma (2000: 23) explains, from "a Baule perspective, human experience evolves out of and remains inextricably tied to the ancestral world (blolo) - referred to as 'the village of truth' - which controls and determines the fate of the living. Blolo affects the quality of harvests or the availability of game as well as the physical well-being and fertility of members of the community. The underlying causes and solutions to collective and individual difficulties that arise are relayed by diviners. This information [was believed to be revealed to the diviners] by the omniscient gods and ancestors within blolo through various methods, such as dreams, dances performed while in trance, and several divinatory instruments [...]. Diviners commission[ed] figurative works as a means of attracting [the attention of bush spritis, called asye usu] and bringing them out of the bush and into the village. The sculpture is described as asye usu's 'stool,' because the spirit uses it as a resting point. Such works represent idealized male or female figures in their prime, which the asye usu consider desirable forms to inhabit."
Artists commissioned with the creation of sculptures used in divination had to follow closely the instructions of the diviners who might have been told certain details about the figure's required physical appearance, posture, scarification marks, jewelry and hairstyle by the asye usu bush spirit itself, often during a dream.
According to LaGamma (ibid.), the "level of artistry directly affect[ed] their owner's ability to prophesize by seducing nature spirits and inducing them to divulge insights into the human condition." And Vogel (1997: 221) continues: "The largest, oldest and most elaborate Baule figure sculptures are made as the loci for gods and spirits that possess their human partners and send messages through them in trance state."
III. The Kunin Statue
At exactly 17 3/4 in (45.1 cm) in height, the Kunin Baule Female Statue is of monumental scale, bearing in mind that it is seated and would measure at least 25 inches if it were to stand up. A tour-de-force work with majestic presence, it is also one of the most refined Baule sculptures known. The elongated torso with arms resting on the abdomen, strong calves, beautiful tri-crested coiffure, geometric scarification patterns and the serene facial expression incarnate a physical and moral ideal within Baule society. Discussing a pair of Baule figures from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vogel (1997: 236) elaborates further on this ideal: "Their beautiful [...] coiffures, and their refined scarifications demonstrate their desire to please; their clean, healthy skin, and rounded muscles show they can work successfully, producing food and crafting the things needed by society. At ease in the world, their flexed legs show compressed energy, and the muscular tension of alertness."
In her discussion of the Kunin figure at the occasion of the landmark exhibition Baule: African Art, Western Eyes, Susan Vogel (loc. cit.: 59) adds: "The spread-legged posture of this figure [= the Kunin figure] is highly unusual, as is the deliberate omission of the opening that would make it possible to cover her with the normal fabric loincloth. Her aggressive nudity may express an implied threat. The female body as the source of life is one of the most potent amuin [= spiritual power] the Baule have, and clandestine or brazen looking at a woman’s sexual organs can be fatal to men. The female spirit localized in this sculpture is probably shown as close to the powers of Adyanun, the women’s deity, and able to invoke her god in defense of her human partner."
The surviving corpus of Baule statues of comparable scale and quality to the Kunin Female Statue is extremely small: cf. the aforementioned pair of male and female figures with half-open eyes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which was previously also in the collection of Hélène and Henri Kamer (published in Vogel 1997: 236); a standing male figure previously in the collection of Robert Rubin, New York (Sotheby’s, New York, May 13, 2011, lot 25 and cover); a standing female figure published in Einstein (1915: pls. 54-56); a male figure in the Folkwang Museum, Essen (Einstein 1915: pl. 57); and a standing male figure previously in the collection of James Johnson Sweeney (Sweeney 1935: cat. 69). The Kunin figure's early provenance, heavy erosion under the stool and exceptionally fine patina with traces of long ritual use suggest great age.