Lot 11
  • 11

Bamana Male Figure, Mali

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • wood
  • Height: 41 1/2 in (105.4 cm)


Hélène and Philippe Leloup, Paris and New York, acquired ca. 1975
John Buxton, Dallas, acquired from the above ca. 1987-88
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on April 27, 1988


Philippe de L'Estang, "Apropos de l'art primitif afrique", Galeries Magazine, No.14, August/September, 1986, p. 38
Pierre Harter, "Les Bambara", Primitifs, No. 4, May-June 1991, p. 47


Good condition for an object of this rare type and age. Marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, and chipping consistent with age and ritual handling. Losses to lower arms and fronts of feet as seen in catalogue illustration. Old loss to one braid on proper right side of the head. Stable age cracks and minor flaws to the wood throughout. Exceptionally fine aged medium gray-brown patina, rubbed at high points and with encrustation in crevices. Fixed permanently to modern metal plate. A round sticker on one foot with the number "73".
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Presented at the heart of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Main Africa gallery is an iconic group of Bamana wood figures formerly in the collection of Nelson A. Rockefeller.  These powerful masterpieces, created for use in the Jo and Gwan societies in the Bougouni and Dioïla regions of southern Mali, are among the oldest surviving wood sculptures from Africa in the museum’s collection and the group is shown as the centerpiece of its presentation of the arts of Africa.  According to Ezra (in Colleyn 2001: 131), the "art of the Bamana Jo society became known in Europe and the United States before Jo itself was known.  In the late 1950s there appeared on the art market a group of Bamana sculptures unlike any other Bamana art forms then known in museums or private collections.  Several were included in Robert Goldwater's landmark exhibition of Bamana art at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York (Goldwater 1960: figs. 87, 91-99).  With no documentation with which to identify or interperet them other than that they originated in the southern Bamana region around the town of Bougouni, Goldwater mistakenly referred to them as 'queens' (1960: 17)."

The small corpus of Bamana masterpieces from the Bougouni or Dioïla region mentioned by Ezra includes the seven figures today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; a standing figure formerly in The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, today in the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.; a seated female figure in the Menil Collection, Houston; and a seated female figure in the Musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Ezra (loc. cit.) continues: "The Jo and Gwan figures are larger and more massive than other Bamana figures.  Often standing three to four feet tall, they have thick cylindrical torsos, broad shoulders, and smoothly curved ovoid heads. Their arms and legs connect to shoulders and hips in a fluid manner, unlike the abrupt angular transitions seen in many other types of Bamana sculpture, including the Nyeleni sculptures used by new Jo initiates in their performances [...].  The Jo and Gwan sculptures represent both females and males, whereas other types of Bamana sculpture are almost exclusively female. They depict people in a variety of postures and guestures and wearing or carrying a diverse array of objects. [...] Some of the figures, both female and male, wear or carry objects associated with occult powers, such as amulet-studded hats, animal horns filled with spiritually charged substances, and protective charms in the form of belts, packets hanging around the neck or under the arm, and pouches slung across the chest."

In her discussion of the closely related seated female figure in the Menil Collection, Houston, Van Dyke (2008: 46, inv. no. "X143") notes: "Among the Bamana people living in the region south of the town of Dioïla in Mali, groups of large figurative sculpture like this one were - and in some cases still are - displayed during annual rituals of Jo, an initiation association, and Gwan, a cult affiliated with Jo in some villages.  The aim of Jo is to use the spiritual power of the society's ritual objects and the dedication pledged in members' solemn oaths to assure the cohesion and harmony of society.  The purpose of Gwan is to help women who have had difficulty conceiving children.

"Rituals involving the Jo and Gwan sculptures (jomògòniw and gwanyiriw, respectively), some possibly up to five hundred years old, are similar. At the beginning of the rainy season, elder Jo members offer sacrifices to these ritual objects to strengthen them. The men carry the sculptures outside and pour purifying water over them. Postmenopausal women wash the figures with soap and water, anoint them with shea oil, and decorate them with beads [...]. Bamana people who have witnessed these sculptural displays describe them as extraordinary and marvelous.

"The jomògòniw and gwanyiriw are distinct from other types of Bamana figurative sculptures, even those used in other Jo rituals. They are taller and more massive than the standing images of jonyeleniw, or young women, that every seven years enliven the itinerant performances of newly initiated Jo members (Ezra 1986: 17-22; Ezra 2001: 137-138). Their bodies are generally rounded, rather than sharp edged and planar, and the limbs and other body parts show fluid, organic transitions, rather than the abrupt, angular connections seen in the jonyeleniw."

And LaGamma (online object database, no date) continues: "For annual Jo and Gwan rituals, the sculptures are removed from their shrines, cleaned and oiled, decorated with cloth and beads, and set up in the village square in groups. The groupings always feature a mother and child, usually accompanied by a similarly attired male figure and several other male and female figures. The mother and child and her male counterpart are seated in positions of honor, wearing and holding tokens of their physical and supernatural powers -- among them, knives, lances, and amulet-studded hats. The companion figures are often shown in attitudes of respect and submission. When viewed as a whole, these groups of sculptures are the embodiment of Bamana ideals and behavior. [...] Many of the ornaments and weapons seen on the Jo and Gwan figures are also found on terracotta figures from Mali that date from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. Radiocarbon analysis also suggests that these examples may be older than the one or two centuries generally thought possible for wood sculptures to survive in the African environment."