Lot 161
  • 161

Bamana Mask, Mali

70,000 - 100,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood
  • Height: 25 in (63.5 cm)
The base perhaps by Earl Horter (1881 - 1940)


Paul Guillaume, Paris
Earl Horter, Philadelphia, acquired from the above before 1930
Elizabeth Lentz Horter, Philadelphia, by descent from the above
Sotheby's, New York, November 16, 1985, lot 381, consigned by the estate of the above
Private American collection, acquired at the above auction


The Museum of Modern Art, New York, African Negro Art, March 18 - May 19, 1935
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mad for Modernism: Earl Horter and his Collection, March 7 - May 16, 1999


James Johnson Sweeney, African Negro Art, New York, 1935, p. 32, cat. no. 32 (listed)
Lincoln Rothschild, Sculpture Through the Ages, New York, 1942, pl. CXX
Paul Radin and James Johnson Sweeney, African Folktales and Sculpture, New York, 1952, pl. 2
James Johnson Sweeney, African Sculpture, Princeton, 1970, fig. 2
Innis Howe Shoemaker, Christa Clarke, and William Wierzbowski, Mad for Modernism: Earl Horter and his Collection, Philadelphia, 1999, p. 135, figs. 61-62, p. 137, figs. 63-65, p. 142, pl. 87, p. 175, fig. 85

Catalogue Note

In 1934, Alfred Barr, the director of the newly-founded Museum of Modern Art in New York, initiated a profound and audacious exhibition project which would dramatically influence the world's understanding of African art. Barr enlisted the curator James Johnson Sweeney to organize the first major exhibition dedicated to art from that continent at an American institution.  With the help of Louis Carré and Charles Ratton, Sweeney and Barr gathered together more than five hundred major pieces for what would become a canon-defining event. African Negro Art opened at MoMA the following spring, and ran from March 16 to May 19, 1935. The exhibited works presented a picture of the taste for African art among artists and connoisseurs of the period. Works which were included in this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue have become icons of the genre: the seated Dogon figure loaned by Louis Carré, the Bangwa, Fang, and Kota works loaned by Helena Rubinstein, the Lega ivories loaned by Alphonse Stoclet, and Fang works loaned by Paul Guillaume, just to name a few.

As he gathered artworks for the exhibition, Alfred Barr wrote to the American artist Earl Horter of Philadelphia. Horter replied in a handwritten letter:

“Dear Mr. Barr, Your letter before me–concerning a negro mask […] I have several in my possession and will loan anything I have which you desire. I have a fairly large one as follows. I still have some fine Picassos and Braques, Matisse, Dufy…”  

Here Horter sketches in the margin of the letter the large mask to which he refers—the present Bamana Ntomo mask—surmounted by vertical tines flanking a standing figure above a cubist face.

As discussed in the catalogue produced on the occasion of the exhibition Mad for Modernism: Earl Horter and His Collection, held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1999, Horter was notable as a member of the avant-garde, and an American proponent of the ideas in modern art percolating in Europe in the early twentieth century. Like fellow Philadelphian Dr. Albert C. Barnes, and indeed with Barnes’ advice, Horter took an interest in the cubist forms of certain African traditions, and sought African sculptures from sources such as the French dealer Paul Guillaume, from whom he acquired the present mask.

The Horter Bamana mask relates closely to another which Barnes acquired, and which today remains in the Barnes Foundation (see Clarke, African Art in the Barnes Foundation, New York, 2015, pp. 78-80, cat. no. 2b). These masks are so distinctive and similar in their design and detail that they can be attributed to the same artist, an assumption supported by the fact that they were traded via the same source.

Regarding the present mask, Christa Clarke noted that during the 1935 run of African Negro Art, “Horter’s Bamana mask was seen by a large audience, as attendance at the exhibition averaged a thousand visitors a day. The mask was also selected to be photographed by Walker Evans for a portfolio based on the exhibition. Evans photographed the mask in two closely cropped views, frontal and profile, emphasizing the angular lines and flat planes of the object. The portfolio itself, produced in a limited edition of seventeen, became an exhibition, displayed at a number of museums and galleries throughout the United States” (Clarke, Mad for Modernism: Earl Horter and His Collection, Philadelphia, 1999, pp. 136, 138)

Clark continues: “When Horter died in 1940, he left behind only eleven works of African art, a collection that he characterized as ‘small but intensive’” (ibid., p. 138)  Horter’s daughter Elizabeth Lentz Horter inherited the mask, and when her estate was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1985, the present mask was offered without fanfare, where it was acquired by the present owner.

While the early modernists considered objects like the Horter mask primarily for their formal characteristics, today we have the benefit of a greater understanding of their original context. According to Colleyn, "The Ntomo, a society of as-yet uncircumcised children, is well-known in the West thanks to its beautiful masks and the classic book by Dominique Zahan (Zahan 1960). [...]  The Ntomo opens the door of the Korè, and other initiation societies. Everybody knows the Ntomo song that summarizes the obligation of keeping their secrets: 'Close your mouth firmly, close your mouth; the mouth is the enemy' (Aw ye a gweleya aw daw la, da de jugu ye). The Ntomo dancers hold a whip or flexible rod, for it is within the framework of Ntomo that the young boys learn, by grace of ritual flagellation, to keep quiet and to suffer in silence" (Colleyn, Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali, New York, 2001, p. 95).

Ntomo dancers represent primordial man and human perfection. They appear harmonious, androgynous and in possession of a multitude of human virtues. The Bamana believe the mouth to be a part of the anatomy intimately linked to the establishing of social interaction. By the same token, it can also be an origin of serious social disruption, especially through the spoken word. Thus the ntomo dancer is silent, uttering no sound while performing.