Bamana Gwandusu Seated Maternity Figure Mali
Sculpture among the Bamana of Mali gives rise to a wide range of styles sharing certain identifying characteristics. The styles may range from elegant forms as this figure or reduced to sharply defined geometric sculptures. This wonderful Bamana figure is a rare classic carving with some use and good age stylistically located to the area between Bougouni and Diola. This grave personage known as Jomooni or Gwandusu is called a ‚Äòmaternity figure' due to her holding a child at her waist, which represents not only a baby but the concept and difficulty of birth and regeneration. Sculpture is an important visual component of the Jo initiation society for young girls and boys. Located primarily among the southern Bamana, Jo takes place over a span of years in which the initiates undergo training and instructions which includes sculptures as ‚Äúmasiriw - the visual ornaments‚Äù of Jow. As part of annual celebrations that take place when the first rains of the year occur figures such as this would be taken from their shrine house to the center of the village where they would be ritually cleansed and decorated with beads. These events were directed to assure the fertility of women and crops and to acknowledge the ancestors The headcrest is typical of Bamana or even Dogon hairstyles shown in a double strands at the back of the head. Her ears are pierced and would at some point in the past had earrings drawn through them.
Figures like these appear in the annual celebrations of Jo, an association of initiated men and women living near the towns of Bougouni and Dio√Øla in southern Mali. They also appear in the rituals of Gwan, a related institution concerned with helping women to conceive and bear healthy children. Jo and Gwan sculptures are larger than most Bamana figures, and their distinctive style consists of massive, rounded forms rather than the angular, cubistic ones more typical of Bamana art. Finely incised scarification marks cover their faces, necks, and torsos.
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. Although sculptures such as these continue to be produced and displayed in a few Bamana villages, some may have been made considerably earlier. 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. (metmuseum.org)
In traditional African societies, a childless marriage is a grave problem that has serious repercussions on the relationships between wife, husband, andin-laws and on the village as a whole. Further, childlessness seems to be the wife's problem to resolve. According to Kate Ezra (1986), women with fertility and child-bearing problems in Bamana society affiliate with Gwan, an association that is especially concerned with such problems. Women who avail themselves of its ministrations and who succeed in bearing children make extra sacrifices to Gwan, dedicate their children to it, and name them after the sculptures associated with the association.
Gwan sculptures occur in groups and are normally enshrined. An ensemble includes a mother-and-child figure like this one, the father, and several other male and female figures. They are considered to be extremely beautiful, that is, "things that can be looked at without limit", because they achieve the Bamana standard for sculpture: they illustrate ideals of physical beauty and ideals of character and action. The figures are brought out of the shrine to appear in annual public ceremonies. At such times, the figures are washed and oiled and then dressed in loincloths, head ties, andbeads, all of which are contributed by the women of the village.
Sculptures depicting a seated female figure clasping an infant to her torso are called Gwandusu. The name implies such ideal attributes as"extraordinary strength, ardent courage, intense passion and conviction as well as the ability to accomplish great deeds" (ibid., 30).This figure has not been scientifically dated. However, a seated female figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is stylistically and iconographically similar dates at least from the seventeenth century (ibid., 2,8, 44). (randafricanart.com)