H. 16 1/2 x W. 8 3/4 x D. 11 1/8 in. (41.9 x 22.2 x 28.2 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 350
This genre of helmet mask, known as bolo (pl. bole), is worn by blacksmiths at important agricultural celebrations, initiation rites, and funerals in Bobo communities. In performances, bole function primarily to provide entertainment while other, older mask types are considered more sacred and carry greater spiritual weight. Bole may take two distinct forms, the full helmet type seen here or a three-quarter one. The prominent sagittal crest is a defining characteristic of bole. This example's facial features are roughly hewn, but accented by a number of exquisite details. The mouth, for example, with its protruding lips, also incorporates round sticks set into holes that form two rows of teeth. The oval-shaped eyes are highlighted by animal hair attached to the lids and brow ridge, giving this face eyelashes as well as eyebrows. The surface of the mask is incised with numerous vertical and diagonal lines that create intricate geometric patterns of triangles and squares. The incised patterns are accentuated with alternating schemes or red, white, and blue/black pigments. The triangles may represent leather Muslim amulets thought by non-Muslim Bobo to contain magical properties. An extensive fiber costume is attached to the holes at the base of the mask to cover the performer, who is invariably a male dancer. Bole most commonly represent human subjects, thus the anthropomorphic appearance of this mask; however, there are other types of bole that represent various animals, including the antelope, ram, monkey, and rooster.
During Bobo masquerades, wooden masks such as this spin wildly, seemingly out of control, from one side of the open dance arena to the other. The performance climaxes in a tour-de-force rotation of the mask. The wooden mask is raised above the performer's head and rapidly rotated through two or three revolutions. It is common to see the identity of the blacksmith performer during such maneuvers.
Although today both farmers and blacksmiths use wooden masks, it is only the blacksmiths who make the masks. Blacksmiths maintain a unique position in Bobo society; they are considered supernatural men who possess associations with invisible spirits and mysterious powers inaccessible to common citizens. Due to their intermediary position between the earthly and spirit realms, only blacksmiths possess the secret knowledge and strength to create a wooden mask and mediate its powerful forces.
The original inspiration for the bolo masking tradition came from the neighboring Zara peoples, but the Bobo have since transformed it to such a degree that only the name remains as an indicator of its Zara origins. The open expanses of the western Sudan have facilitated a history of cultural exchange among the region's ethnically diverse inhabitants. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the formation of a Mossi kingdom which brought together numerous ethnic groups such as the Bobo, Bwa, Gurunsi, Kurumba, and Lobi and resulted in a network of mutual influence and assimilation in the area. As a result of this historical connection, many similarities can be seen in regional artistic forms and cultural practices.
[Robert L. Stolper Galleries, New York and Los Angeles, until 1959]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1959, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1959–1978