Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Pair of Diviner's Figures, 19th–20th century
    Baule peoples; Côte d'Ivoire
    Wood, pigment, beads, iron; H. 21 13/16 in. (male), 20 2/3 in. (female)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1969 (1978.412.390–.391)

    Among the Baule peoples of Côte d'Ivoire, human experience evolves out of and remains inextricably linked to the ancestral spirit world, or blolo (roughly, "the village of truth"), which controls and determines the fate of the living. Divination figures such as these serve as links to the spirit world and are a critical element in a Baule diviner's professional practice. Baule diviners are individuals who have been selected by spirits, or asye usu, as mediums through which to communicate important insights into the human condition. The sculptures are often described as the asye usu's "stool," a figurative resting point for the spirits. Divination figures represent idealized male or female figures in their prime, which are considered by the asye usu as desirable forms to inhabit, and so are used to draw the unruly spirits out of their home in the bush and into the village.

    The elegant and refined couple shown here is especially successful in capturing such an ideal. The figures are slender, with long torsos and muscular legs that are slightly flexed. With their eyes closed and hands resting on their abdomens, both figures reflect the same tranquil meditative attitude of contemplation. They are symmetrical and fluid in design, and their facial features are described with precision and great attention to detail. The recessed eye sockets are accentuated with a layer of white kaolin, reflecting the practice of diviners who analogously apply kaolin to their own eyes and lips, enabling them to see and hear the spirits while in a trance state. Bodily adornments on both figures include beaded strands around the neck, hips, and ankles, and are particularly significant because they function to confer the culturally desirable attributes of civilization on the wild and disruptive asye usu. The female figure is slightly smaller in size, a characteristic accentuated by the male's conical coiffure. Both figures' feet rest on circular bases and are covered with an encrustation of sacrificial matter. Great care has been exercised to apply the sacrificial offerings to the feet of the figure only, so that its overall aesthetic refinement is not marred.

    The more elaborate the ornamental and decorative features of an individual work, the more time has been invested in its execution by the sculptor, and the greater the expense to its owner. The culmination of such efforts hopefully results in the creation of a sculpture that is most attractive to the asye usu. When used by Baule diviners, such works not only flatter the asye usu but also add to the theatrical spectacle of a public pronouncement of a divinatory revelation. Their aesthetic quality dazzles potential clients with the caliber and sophistication of the instruments associated with a diviner. The beauty of a figure advertises its owner's success as an intermediary with the spirit world. Consequently, diviners prosper by commissioning superlative figures as divinatory instruments. Ownership of extraordinary objects thus directly affects a diviner's professional standing and enhances public perception of his or her efficacy.

    This work of art also appears on Connections: Africa

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  • Pair of Diviner's Figures, 19th–20th century
    Baule peoples; Côte d'Ivoire
    Wood, pigment, beads, iron; H. 21 13/16 in. (male), 20 2/3 in. (female)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1969 (1978.412.390-.391)

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