Ciwara Masks

Thursday 24 September 2009 by Florence

The two millions two hundred and fifty thousands of Bamana, also called Bambara, are the most important ethnic of Mali. They live principally from farming with a little bit of rearing in the north part of their territory. Their religious and social life is again often determined by six male initiation societies. Each stage of initiation is accompanied by the use of a certain mask types, most of them zoomorphic. Among the best known of these is the antelope headdress of the fifth society, ciwara (which means “head of a wild beast”), whose members performed ritual dances intended to ensure the fertility of the fields.

In terms of style, ciwara headdress masks can be classified in three groups, each of which is associated with a certain Bamana region. The vertical type occurs primarily in the eastern Bamana region, between the towns of Sikasso in the south and Segou in the North. This type of masks always appeared in male-female pair (see picture n° 1). The reunion of the two animals symbolizes the sun and earth and their signification for human life. At the same time, the representation of the male roan antelope (dega) invokes the mythical primeval era when this animal gave the first grain to human beings and taught them how to till the soil.

A second type of headdress, characterized by strong abstraction, is essentially found in the southwestern Ouassoulou region. It shows a combination of three different species of animal : the aardvark (timba), the pangolin (n’koso kasa) and the roan antelope (dega). The base of the headdress is formed by a representation of the aardvark. Here it is recognizable from the elongated head, pointed ears and bend legs. The structure on the aardvark’s back, circumscribed by a nearly closed oval, represents a pangolin in the rolled-up position it assumes in defense and to protect its young. This stylized figure is surmounted by two vertical elements and by the horns and long, pointed ears of an antelope (see picture n° 2). This mask is worn during ritual dances intended to ensure the fertility of the fields. For the Bamana, therefore, these three animals are symbolically linked with tilling the soil, including its sexual connotations. Sexuality and agricultural activity are closely related in their minds, since both ensure human survival. A female figure is sometimes mounting the pangolin (see picture n° 3). This is a reference of farming because the largest a Bamana man’s harvest is, the more demand as a husband he will be, and the more wives he can support.

Then, the third style, called “horizontal” due to the position of the antelope’s horns, is typical of the area around Bamako and northwestern Mali. Here again there is the long, curved horns of the roan antelope (dega) and the head, body, legs and tail recall an aardvark (timba). The aardvark is a quick and skilled tunneler, which is why it is so admired by the Bamana farmers


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