Bamana figures such as this were the focal point of celebrations of the Jo and Gwan initiation societies (associations of men and women) in several villages in southern Mali. Female elders among the Jo and Gwan leadership commissioned and cared for an entire series of allegorical figures belonging to their community. This work depicts an idealized male leader that would have been the companion to a similarly attired mother and child representation. Depending on a community's resources, such ensembles also generally included additional male and female attendant figures engaged in a variety of activities. For annual Jo and Gwan rituals, the sculptures were removed from their shrines, cleaned and oiled, decorated with cloth and beads, and set up in the village square as a group. The mother and child and her male counterpart were seated in central positions of honor, distinguished by attributes of their extraordinary physical and supernatural powers.
The specific gestures performed by the Jo and Gwan sculptures, which are not seen elsewhere in Bamana art, are descriptive of the supernatural protections and powers of elite Bamana leaders. The hat, adorned with depictions of animal horns and amulets, is a very important physical attribute of this particular sculpture. Amulets, which affect such things as fertility, health, hunting, agriculture, and warfare, derive their efficacy from the knowledge and skills of the person who makes and wears them. Additionally, the specific form of this hat identifies the figure as a hunter who possesses heightened powers of perception.
The lance held in the hand of this figure appears to have an iron blade and a wooden shaft and is therefore a depiction of a "weapon of distinction." Such an object was handed down from father to son at the time of his initiation as a relic of heroic ancestors and to protect the youth in his time of greatest vulnerability. The knife worn on the hunter's upper arm has additional associations with hunting and is of the type frequently seen on older examples of Bamana sculpture, including terracottas dating as far back as the twelfth century.
The heavily lidded eyes, closed mouth, and arms held close to the body suggest a sense of calm and self-possession, accentuating the stature and respect commanded by the figure. With its arched shoulders, curving facial features, rounded volumes, and underlying naturalism, this sculpture is a particularly graceful example of the Jo or Gwan style. The work's unusually good state of preservation, given its age, is the result of the extremely dry climate of southern Mali.
John and Evelyn Kossak (Kronos Collections), Westport, CT, until 1983