A Superb Bamana Ntomo Mask, Mali, attributed to the "Master of the Antelopes"
Morton and Estelle Sosland, Kansas City, acquired from the above in the 1970s
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In the history of African art, the notion of the individual artist was not introduced until 1946. In this year, Frans Olbrechts, the famous Belgian art historian, identified 'The Master of the Buli', referring to a now famous Luba carver active in the 19th century. Subsequently, the identification of authorship and workshops of African art has become an increasingly important focus of African art history, including the issuing of catalogue raisonnées like Roslyn A. Walker's Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings (cf. Walker 1998). A landmark in this important scholarly development was the exhibition and publication Masterhands – Mains des Maîtres. Á la découverte des sculpteurs d'Afrique which garnered the participation of major private and institutional collections in 2001 in Brussels (cf. Grunne 2001).
Allen Wardwell was in the forefront of this art historical movement when, in 1966, he examined a group of Bamana figures which he believed to belong to a hetherto unidentified Bamana sub-style (Wardwell 1968). Ezio Bassani refined this theory in 1978, when he identified a group of 57 Bamana sculptures which he bleived to originate from a single workshop. This workshop, active at the end of the 19th and early 20th century in the Bani River region, between Segou and Koutiala (cf. Bassani 1978, part 2: 197-199), was subsequently called the "Masters of Segou."
Based on meticulous stylistic analysis, Bassani went on to identify three individual hands responsible for the creation of 40 sculptures. According to the favorite subjects and characteristics of their creations, he named these artists "The Master of the Slender Figures," "The Master of the Bird of Prey Profile," and the "Master of the Antelopes" (Bassani 1978, part 2: 196).
The Sosland Mask is a magnificent example of the work of the third artist, the "Master of the Antelopes." Only six other masks by this hand are known to exist, all Ntomo masks and all but two in museum collections. These are: one mask in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (Katherine White Collection); three masks in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (two previously in the Musée de l'Homme, one previously in the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens); a fifth in a private collection, previously in the Pierre Vérité Collection, Paris; and a sixth in a private collection (for illustrations and discussions of all masks see Bassani 1978, part 1: 219, and 1978, part 2: 194 and 196, with illustrations 29-34 and 36-37). The Sosland mask is not listed and was apparently unknown to Bassani at the time of his study. While the other six masks are surmounted by crocodile (in four cases) and antelope (in two cases) figures, the Sosland Mask is the only Ntomo mask by this artist surmounted by a female standing figure. This iconography seems to have been borrowed from another artist from the workshop, the Master of the Slender Figures, who is known to have carved several masks in this genre (cf. Bassani 1978, part 2: 191-192 and 196 with illustrations 26-28), a fact that might attest to a fruitful and inspiring exchange of ideas between the different artists forming the workshop of the "Masters of Segou."