Among the Bambara people (also called Bamara) the masks and African statues are sculpted or forged by blacksmiths that live in castes. As with Dogon statues, those of the Bamara peoples are expressed through a schematic language. A strong emphasis is placed on the articulation of volume.
There are statues of musicians and warriors carrying spears. These statues illustrate the qualities required of the initiates: beauty, knowledge, power. Each statue is fully explained to the initiates.
The daily life of the Bamara people, be it religious or social, focuses upon the initiation of adolescents and men, governed by a complex group of secret societies or associations that accompany the individual throughout his lifetime. Each society has its own masks, statues and crests. Each level of initiation has a corresponding mask and these masks make their appearances during celebrations such as weddings, inauguration of a market…
During the Tyiwara association’s farming celebrations, farmers wear headdresses crowned with antelopes, ever present in African art, and which represent the mythological character that taught them how to cultivate the land.
The Bamara live in a large territory to the south west of the Dogon.
The Bamara are a farming people who actively cultivate the land. But, the dry savannah only allows them a subsistence economy, the ground producing with difficulty, millet, sorgho, fonio, rice and beans.
The Bamara were colonized by the French at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Organisation of Bamara Society
The Bamara venerate their dead and have initiatory societies that are organized by age group. They are a patrilineal and patrilocal society.
Social and political authority is assured by numerous social entities. Each village has a land chief, who is responsible for dividing up the land to cultivate, and a political chief who is responsible for organizing the daily lives of his fellow citizens. Sometimes, this might be one and the same person. The Bamara are spread over regions made up of villages placed under the authority of one family. This family, descended from the founder, has considerable power and a prominent role in farming rituals.
The Bamara Religion
The Bamara’s cosmology is extremely complex. Their religion recognizes Ngala (meaning God) as the Supreme Being. Other spiritual beings are also represented such as the mixed sex twins of the Dogon. One pair is disruptive: Pemba (male), the equivalent of Ogo for the Bamara, and the other pair is reconciliatory: Bemba (male) the equivalent of O Nommo. The world is conceived then as a world with four twins. Each twin evokes one of the four essential elements: fire, air, water and the earth. Then there is Faro, the androgynous master of words and reorganization like O Nommo. He manifests himself through the rain, rainbows, lightening, and thunder. Born from the saliva of Ngala, Faro is at the same time her voice and visible opposite. Faro is at the heart of the religious belief system and the cosmology of the Bamara. From a pair of female twins he created the first of the Bamara, the primordial ancestor. He is also at the origin of order; he gave men their conscience, their sense of justice and responsibility. He controls their destiny, takes care to maintain the equilibrium within the society and watches over work that is to be done.
The Bamara worship their ancestors. The elderly people are the ones best place in establishing communications between the world of the living and that of the dead. Libations and sacrifices are offered to the dead ancestors in order to make them favour their descendants and to pass on to them their strength, health and vitality.
The Bamara also venerate twins, who are considered as being the replica of Faro. It is believed that they bring happiness to their family and ward off harmful forces. An altar is consecrated to them and sacrifices are carried out for them. If one twin dies then a statuette of his/her twin is offered to him/her. If a gift is offered to the surviving twin one must be offered at the same time to the statuette.
The Bamara have their masks and statues forged by blacksmith that live in castes. As with Dogon statue making, those of the Bamara are expressed through a schematic language and emphasis is placed on the articulation of volume. However, Dogon sculpture is more austere than those of the Bamara which has a greater three dimensionality and a more developed sense of decoration. A female statue generally has large conical breasts, the arms placed away from the body, and the facial features are emphasized, especially the nose (which is seen as the organ of emotions) which promotes harmonious social relationships.
The masks are made from sacred wood and usually decorated with cowries and red and black seeds.
Initiation, Bamara Secret Societies.
The daily life of the Bamara, be it religious or social, revolves around the initiation of adolescents and men, governed by a complex group of secret societies that accompany the individual throughout his lifetime. Initiation is practiced at the heart of these associations, present to a greater or lesser extent depending on the village:
The N’domo, is open to children awaiting circumcision. Here, the origins of man and his status in the world are taught. Associated with the N’domo society is an oval faced mask, crowned with two vertical horns. The number of horns symbolizes the sex, masculine, feminine or androgen.
- The Komo controls community life and human knowledge and welcomes the adolescents after their circumcision. Here, the hypocritical or vain man is unmasked…The Komo mask has a large mouth, antelope horns, jaws and various other elements. This mask is worn only by blacksmiths and can only be danced in front of Komo initiates. The mask’s disconcerting appearance evokes both the bush and its dangers. Its force is such that it is capable of killing.
- The Nama is concerned with man’s social relationships and his battle against witchcraft.
A moral education is given, focusing on marriage and social behavior.
- The Kono, teaches novices about the duality of human nature and how to recognise bad from evil. The Kono mask represents both an elephant, the symbol of intelligence, and a bird, the symbol of the spirit. The ears are large, placing the emphasis on hearing.
- The Tyiwara, clearly shows man’s relationship with the cosmos. The aim is to make the farmer into a man with excellent physical and moral qualities, but who can also relate cosmic reality, the sun and the earth to his farming activities. During this association’s agrarian festivities, the farmers wear headdresses that are crowned with antelopes representing the mythical character that taught them to cultivate the land. In order for the harvest to be plentiful, at sowing time the farmers dance and masquerade antelope movements.
- The Kore is associated with death and the individual’s resurrection. It brings about its union with God and its fulfillment to the supreme wisdom. The Kore has 8 levels of initiates, each one with its own emblem:
- The 1st society, Karaw, is where the teaching of wisdom begins. The emblem is a sculpted board with a handle at the bottom. A distinction is made between the male and female Karaw. The male masks have projections on the top, symbolizing the index, the middle and ring fingers. The feminine masks haven’t got these projections, because the female spirit is obscure, elusive and secretive.
- The 2nd society, Dyaraw is the society of lions. It has two masks, the male lion, and the lioness recognizable by her small size. It evokes divine wisdom, and the dancer’s complete control of his movements shows that he has a complete hold over knowledge. The Dyaraw are associated on a social level, with the aristocracy and nobility.
- The 3rd society is the Kurumaw. It has no mask. Its initiates kneel and beat their thighs with thorny plants. This mortification of the flesh is an allusion to the more painful aspect of knowledge. At a social level they are compared to warriors that sacrifice themselves for the good of the community.
- The 4th society is the Dugaw or vultures. Like vultures they are insatiable and greedy. They eat everything, even excrements, this act in itself revealing that knowledge is present in everything. They wear feminine attire, false breasts and behave in a comical manner. They have freedom of speech and of movement. They represent total ancestral knowledge, inebriated with satisfaction, pleasure and inner joy. This class also possesses the horse mask, symbolizing man’s struggle for knowledge and his quest for immortality. At a social level the Dugaw are assimilated with women.
- The 5th society is the Tatgalaw or firelighters. Their emblem is a straw torch that symbolizes enlightened wisdom. The burns are a sign of purification. Socially, this class is assimilated to well known men.
- The 6th society is that of the hyenas or Surukuw. Its mask is long and wooden with pointed ears. The Surukuw are responsible for protecting the initiatory enclosure from prying eyes. Hyena masks are commonplace and there could be up to 80 in a village. The hyena symbolizes knowledge, wisdom, and the sciences of inferior humans to the divine wisdom evoked by the lions and the buffoons. On a social level, the Syrukuw are associated with the captives.
- The 7th society is the Bisa-Tigiw or whip masters. The emblem is a whip and the Bisa-tigiw whip themselves in public. Their behavior is arrogant; it must show both self mastery and mastery of the spoken word, the system of communication in society. This group brings together mercenaries, out of which come heroes.
- The 8th society reunites the Sulaw or monkeys. It shows the right path to follow, beginning with animality and finishing with man’s quest to approach the divinity. At a social level they are similar to the common people.
These societies, governed by several elders, have an educational, political, economic, and medical role, and exert social control over the community.
In the south of Bamara country, these associations are mixed gender, but the initiation is shorter and less severe for the women. Men’s initiation lasts about 7 years culminating in symbolic death and rebirth. Masked festivities mark the end of the initiation period. The new initiates participate, going from village to village.
The initiates are divided into groups and the blacksmith’s sons dance in the presence of Jonyeleni statues. These feminine statues with wide flat shoulders, stand on a circular base and have conical breasts that jut forwards.
Statues of seated women are exhibited during society celebrations and fecundity rituals.
There are also statues of musicians and warriors with spears which show the qualities necessary for an initiate: beauty, knowledge, power. Each statue is fully explained to the initiates and is responsible for conveying the vital forces that contribute to the general cohesion of the village.
Each society has its own masks, crests, and puppets. The masks make their appearance during celebrations: marriages, inauguration of a market…With the help of music, poetry and stories told by the griots, these celebrations are both a time of rejoicing and a way of reinforcing Bamara social values. Dancing during these celebrations was the occasion for young people to show off their aptitude and gain prestige, but first they had to ask permission from the elders.
The boli is an honored object that is kept in the village sanctuary. Its magical components are hidden among an amalgam of clay, wood, bark, roots, horns, jawbones and/or precious metals. Often it took the form of a hippopotamus. It can only be manhandled by the chief or a religious dignitary.