Baule Bicephalous Wooden Mask

SKU PF.3167
Circa

20th Century AD

Dimensions

18″ (45.7cm) high x 11.75″ (29.8cm) wide

Medium

Wood

Origin

Central Ivory Coast

Gallery Location

UK


 

This serene bicephalous mask was made by the Baule of the Ivory Coast area. It is in the semi helmet-mask format, with a dorsal enclosure extending halfway down the masks length. The heads are joined at the apex and across the bottom section of the mask; there is a division between them at about cheek height. The faces are male (right) and female (left), denoted by the presence/absence of a three-section beard. The faces are otherwise virtually identical in terms of size (the male is very slightly taller), shape, proportions and decoration. Even the expressions match. Each face is slightly concave from a bulbous brow, with high, double-arched brows leading to an elongated nose, large, closed eyes, small, pursed lips and keloid scarifications. These are by the sides of the mouth (vertical hatched rectangle with trefoil rays), below the eyes (horizontal hatched rectangle), by the eyes (trefoil rays) and on the forehead (four small hatched blocks curving over each brow). The hair is perfectly symmetrical, with a high, centrally-parted crest decorated with vertical incised lines of exceptional fineness. The lateral aspect of the head (and the central, although not as clearly visible) is rendered as seven stripes of cross-hatched hair being pulled back towards the rear of the mask. The coiffure is separated from the forehead by a line of thin, twine-like beading. The ears are small and flat to the head. The perimeter of the mask's body is pierced with multiple holes with evidence of usage. This is backed up with a notable dark patina on the masks surface, which is absent on the body, perhaps denoting the line of the costume with which this was originally worn.
The Baule live across the Ivory Coast area, and have an economy based primarily on sedentary agriculturism. They have thus been able to build up a considerable political and economic stronghold, which has in turn given rise to a strong ritual and artistic heritage. Their own creation story relates to an ancient migration, in which the queen was forced to sacrifice her son in order to ford a mighty river. So upset was she that all she could say was baouli (the child is dead), thus giving rise to the tribe's name.

Blolo bian (male) and Blolo bla (female) spirit spouses are perhaps the Baule's greatest artistic and psycho-social achievement, but they are also renowned for sculptures representing bush spirits (Asie usu) mischievous and potentially malevolent inhabitants of the bush, or dark country beyond the boundary of the village as well as dance masks, prestige items (often made of gold) and a range of highly decorated secular objects such as doors, heddle pulleys and culinary equipment.

The fact that many such pieces have a centuries-old patina from handling and libations would seem to suggest that pieces can be inherited, and that the sculptures can either contain more than one spouse, or that s/he can be replaced by the spouse of the new owner. This is particularly the case with valuable or very well-carved pieces. Like most other human societies, the Baule are prey to conspicuous consumption, which is a central key to asserting one's status in the village, and thus one's power and influence. While their carving is among the most refined and restrained in Africa, therefore, artists vie to produce more impressive and beautiful carvings which are often decorated or adorned by their proud owners.

The function of this mask would seem to be diplomatic; more common, single-headed variants are worn to receive important dignitaries, while the rarer bicephalous masks have the added positive association of twins, which are a good omen for most African groups (notably the Yoruba). This is an exceptionally striking example, and a superb addition to any discerning collection.

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