Serpent Headdress (a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol)

Baga artist

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 136

The spiritual force represented by such headdress, known as a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol, or roughly "master of medicine," reigns supreme in Baga society. The primary physical manifestation of a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol is as this brilliantly colored, larger-than-life aquatic serpent resembling a boa constrictor. The sinuous curves and undulating contours of the elegant sculptural representation evoke the power, elusive grace, and flexibility of this Baga spiritual entity. From base to summit, the broad vertical column rises, bends to one side, rises at an angle, and ascends again, culminating in a bold head, which features two round eyes. A chain of lozenges is incised and enhanced with applied color up the length, the interstices in red and white pigments. The early Sudanic heritage of the Baga is evident in the geometric forms, pierced and linear decoration, horizontal orientation, and brilliantly colored surfaces of this and many of other Baga art forms.

Among the Baga, a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol's form is considered mutable; he may materialize as a being with human attributes, or as a rainbow that "after having drunk, comes out again at the river sources." The Baga consider the rainbow both the source of rivers and the end of rains. The appearance of a-Mantsho-na-Tshol at initiations was thus consistent with these associations with beginnings and conclusions, life and death, and, by extension, the perpetuation of lineages. The headdresses also appear to have served as emblems of a clan's identity and power, and were used in competitions between families. The headdresses could also be danced at any time to enliven the community. Despite their seemingly unwieldy size, these sculptural forms are manipulated during performances with astonishing dexterity and dynamism. In performance, the massive wood sculptural element would be set vertically on top of a conical framework of palm branches, which was covered with a palm fiber costume that fell to the ground. The ensemble was then placed over the dancer's head. Brilliantly colored textiles were wrapped directly below the base; and at the summit, feathers and cloth streamers flew in the air as the dancer moved. The performers, all strong young men, would take turns dancing to demonstrate varied styles and approaches to the choreography.

Among the Baga, public accessibility to the instruments of spiritual power like this mask was relatively restricted. They were linked with male esoteric knowledge, and their control lay in the hands of leaders of secret associations and family lineages. Following Guinea's independence from France in 1958, the continuity of regional artistic practices within the new nationally defined boundaries was radically disrupted, and masquerade traditions like a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol were discouraged and gradually abandoned. During the 1990s, the Baga experienced a popular revival of earlier art forms, including a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol.

Serpent Headdress (a-Mantsho-ña-Tshol), Baga artist, Wood, pigment, Baga

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