In her important publication Baule: African Art, Western Eyes, Susan Vogel notes that "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." (Vogel, Baule: African Art, Western Eyes, New Haven, 1997, pp. 26-28).
Philip Ravenhill explains that Baule portrait masks, mblo, "are worn to enact a series of characters who dance to music with a participatory audience. The performance climaxes with the arrival of [mblo] in human form, especially portrait masks inspired by actual people. The subject portrayed in, and honored by, a mask may dance with it and address it affectionately as 'namesake' (ndoma)." (Ravenhill in Phillips, ed., Africa: the Art of a Continent: 100 Works of Power and Beauty, New York, 1996, p. 142).
"As in Baule figurative sculpture that depicts otherworldly mates or bush spirits, the face of the mask is critical to Baule ideas of personhood and verisimilitude. It is in looking at the mask's gaze that one perceives it as a person with a living presence. For the Baule, the eyes are the critical metaphor for sentient awareness and personhood, as in the two sayings 'his eyes are open' (i nyi wo su; i.e., he is alive) and 'his eyes have been opened' (i nyi a ti; i.e., he has reached the age of reason, or is open to new ideas). [...] In carving a portrait mask, the Baule artist renders and details the physical facial features - eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, ears - as a complex composition of continuous or broken planes, curves, and surfaces that yields a wholly three-dimensional form [...], the rendition of coiffure, beard, and facial scarification complement physical beauty by cultural notions of propriety, goodness, and relative age. In its details and specificity, the form is recognizable as an individual person." (Ibid.). As in the case of the present mask, where a beard is of human hair, rather than carved from the wood itself, "the depiction of a beard indicates that the person portrayed is an elder, one who has created a family, lived fully, and gained the wisdom and respect that comes with age." (Ibid.) Such a mask evokes the individual character and personal accomplishment of the person depicted, while at the same time acting as a symbol for younger people of the goal of a fulfilled adult life.
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