BAMANA HYENA MASK, MALI
- Height: 20 in (50.8 cm)
John J. Klejman, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, New York, acquired from the above
Acquired by the present owner from the above in the 1990s
Amongst the Bamana the six initiation societies called jow are of profound social significance. "The completion of intellectual and spiritual education offered by these societies takes place within the final one, the kore. Here each adolescent man has to pass through specific rituals in order to enter into manhood. The kore society comprises eight classes or grades, each with a different level of initiation and having its own emblem" (van Damme in Kooten and Heuvel 1990: 42). The hyena (suruku) is the emblem of one of these classes and represents greed and insatiableness. As van Damme (loc. cit.) explains, this symbolizes "the limited, day-to-day human knowledge far removed from divine wisdom. He who wishes to attain this wisdom - and this is the goal of the initiated - should be equipped with self-knowledge and self-control [...] and willing to devote [himself] to the search for true wisdom."
The importance of African sculpture as crucial inspiration for Cubism cannot be overstated. Picasso's dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler went so far as to call artist's exploration of African art "the decisive discovery which allowed painting to create invented signs, freed sculpture from mass, and lead to its transparency." In a later interview, Kahnweiler offered a more moderate view: "It would be wrong to suppose that the Cubists were led to these solutions by Negro art, but in it they found a confirmation of certain possibilities" (quoted after FitzGerald 2007: 38-39).
In his discussion of Picasso's exploration of African sources in the years before and after the creation of his 1907 masterpiece Les Demoisells d'Avignon, William Rubin (1984: 290) identifies the concave facial planes of Bamana masks as likely inspirational source: "A rather idiosyncratic form of concavity can be found in Studies for the Head of a Peasant Woman that Picasso executed in late summer 1908 during his stay on La Rue des Bois. The profile versions of the head in the lower center and right of the sheet [...], however, recall [... the concavity] of Bambara [Bamana] masks of a type probably visible then in France."