Portrait Mask (Mblo)
Baule artist Baoulé
Portrait masks embody the core Baule sculptural style that is echoed in figural sculpture and decorative arts. They also have provided Baule sculptors with their prime opportunity for artistic invention, and the corpus demonstrates enormous formal diversity. This diversity is often apparent in imaginative decorative passages extending above the face: the quiet tranquil visage of this example is crowned with a fantastical series of wild-animal horns.
The mask is exceptional for its nuanced individuality, highly refined details, powerful presence, and considerable age. It is especially appealing for its unusual depth that affords strong three-quarter views. The broad forehead and downcast eyes are classic features associated with intellect and respect in Baule aesthetics. The departure from a rigidly symmetrical representation suggests an individual physiognomy. The expression is one of intense introspection. Its serenity is subtly animated by two opposing formal elements: the flourishes of the coiffure and beard at the summit and base.
Such masks appeared as the final sequence of an operatic public entertainment known as Mblo. Mblo performances consist of a succession of dances that escalate in complexity and importance, culminating ultimately in tributes to the community's most distinguished member. Individuals honored in this way are depicted by a mask that is conceived of as their artistic double or namesake.