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Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture

November 19, 2002–July 6, 2003

A Bamana Tradition: The Origin of Agriculture

The exhibition considered in depth the nuanced complexity of one noteworthy sculptural form from Mali, the ci wara antelope headdress of the Bamana people. An iconic art form in its own right, the ci wara headdress also was explored for a fuller appreciation of one particular artistic tradition and its relationship to a myth of creation.

Among the Bamana, the invention of agriculture, and human understanding of the earth, animals, and plants is attributed to a mythical culture hero, Ci Wara. This knowledge is shared by members of a men's agricultural association—also known as ci wara—that holds ceremonial dances to celebrate the skills of talented farmers and commemorate Ci Wara's beneficence. The headdresses are the visual highlight of the dance.

Ci wara headdresses are traditionally created in pairs, one male and one female. Each consists of a carved wooden artifact attached to a basketry cap that is affixed to the dancer's head. In performance, the pair evokes the elements essential to sustain life. The male is associated with the sun, his female companion—who supports a miniature fawn on her back—has been described as a metaphor for the earth, and long fibers that are attached to the headdresses and cascade over the body of the dancers are interpreted as rivulets of water. The major source of inspiration for the form is the roan antelope, admired for its grace and strength. In addition, the way the animal bends its neck recalls a farmer bending his back to till the soil. Also incorporated in the design are distinctive features of a range of highly symbolic creatures including two species of anteater, the aardvark and the pangolin, whose attributes include determination and conscientiousness.

The juxtaposed negative and positive space in the sculpture resembles intricate cutouts. This elegant abstraction is valued for its transcendent aesthetic qualities not only in the Bamana society that produced it, but also in the West by artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Marius de Zayas, and Fernand Léger. A monotype from the 1980s by the contemporary African artist Paul Ahyi—also featured in the exhibition—reflects the role such forms still play in inspiring aesthetic expression.

Performances of ci wara have been documented by missionaries and researchers since 1905 and reveal a tradition that has at once endured and adapted to shifting realities in Bamana society. Inextricably tied to the spiritual life of rural agrarian communities during the early twentieth century, ci wara has been influenced significantly by changes in agricultural practices, urbanization, and the influence of Islam. As a result, ci wara performances have evolved into secularized theatrical events and the imagery now relates to achievement in a wide range of pursuits relevant to contemporary life in Mali. Photographs and film footage of ci wara performance—an essential aspect of the art form—were integrated into the exhibition. In the film produced to accompany the installation, highlights of footage of a dozen performances recorded between 1970 and 2002 are featured. Among these is the work of the American photographer and collector Eliot Elisofon (1911–1973) as well as that of numerous researchers. Of particular note is never-before-seen footage recorded by Dr. Pascal James Imperato, who documented performances throughout the Bamana region while on assignment to Mali as a medical specialist from 1966 to 1972. In addition, a pair of headdresses complete with their costume ensemble also was displayed to further emphasize the integral relationship between these elements as they relate to performance of the art form.