This magnificent Bamana sculpture, previously in the collections of two of the great connoisseurs of African art of the twentieth century, Charles Ratton and William Rubin, displays an extremely rare zoo-anthropomorphic iconography, combining an elongated multi-segmented zigzag body in vertical orientation with a humanoid head and two long zoomorphic ears. Only two comparable sculptures are known: one in the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg (inv. no. "11.1.469", acquired from Leo Frobenius), and a second previously in the collection of Gaston de Havenon, New York (published in Museum of African Art 1971: fig. 59). The offered lot, however, is distinguished from the other two works by the rendering of the zigzag body in openwork design, a virtuoso feature extremely difficult to carve and a testament to the outstanding skill of the artist.
While all three figures have been previously identified as belonging to the much larger corpus of antelope and other zoomorphic figures used by the chi wara power association (for further discussion see Colleyn 2001: 201 et seq.), the type of the offered lot has recently been identified as headdress accompanying ton performances of a dance known as nama tyétyé (LaGamma 2002: 121, with reference to Pascal James Imparato).
In her discussion of the offered lot on the occasion of the exhibition Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, LaGamma (2002: 121) comments: "Lucid and graphically precise, the startling design of this headdress conveys a sense of kinetic upward momentum, like a release of energy. At the top, the rounded volume of the head is relatively human, with elongated oval ears that project vertically. The neck, mane, and body, however, are reduced to a vertical, accordion-like column - essentially a long zigzag - that is pierced along its central axis by a channel of negative space. The resulting 'passageway' in the center is thus flanked on either side by the complementary zigzag walls. The bisection of the column creates three powerful jagged lines inside one basic form and contributes to the work's apparent flexibility. The subtracted core also heightens the visual impact of the zigzag, otherwise a relatively simple graphic motif. [...]
"The zigzag motif has been interpreted by some scholars of Bamana culture as having great symbolic resonance, such as an illustration of the trajectory of the Sun around Earth. Zahan notes that this is referred to by the Bamana as tle ka sira gondi, or 'the zigzag path of the sun.' The motif also relates to mathematical methods used by Bamana and Dogon to represent geometrically, and to transpose onto a flat surface, empirically observed spiral motions of heavenly bodies. On another level, the zigzag has been described as a metaphor for accounts of epic journeys. Solange de Ganay notes that in the past, ideas of how Bamana culture heroes traveled through heaven and Earth within the sphere of cosmic space were so precise and detailed that diagrams were made to illustrate their passage. In these traditions, Faro, who put the created world in order and Mousi Koroni, the wife of the creator, are regarded as both complementary and antagonistic elements. According to de Ganay, the zigzag line was sometimes used to represent their journeys as well as the path of the planet Venus."
Wood and cotton
The Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, The Art of Black Africa: A Survey of African Sculpture from Collections in the Midwest, February 8 – April 5, 1970
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Primitivism in 20th Century Art, New York, September 27, 1984 – January 15, 1985
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, November 19, 2002 – July 6, 2003
Monnaie de Paris, Paris, Regards de Marchands, September 9 – October 18, 2009
Height: 27 ¼ in (67.2 cm)
The Flint Institute of Arts (ed.), The Art of Black Africa: A Survey of African Sculpture from Collections in the Midwest, Flint, 1970, p. 2, cat. 1
William Rubin (ed.), Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, 1984, vol. 2, p. 329
Warren M. Robbins and Nancy I. Nooter, African Art in American Collections. Survey 1989, Washington D.C., 1989, p. 71, fig. 51
Alisa LaGamma, Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, New York, 2002, p. 120, cat. 75
Elena Martínez-Jacquet and Bérénice Geoffrey-Schneiter, Regards de Marchands: La Passion des Arts Premiers, Paris, 2009, p. 113
Charles Ratton, Paris
Sam Wagstaff, Detroit, acquired from the above
William Rubin, New York, acquired from the above
Alain Bovis, Paris, acquired from the above through Jan Krugier Gallery, New York
Private European Collection, acquired from the above
Acquired by the present owner from the above