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.