An Important Bamana Ntomo mask, Mali
finely carved with scarification on the face and on the torso of the standing female figure; cowries, metal and seeds attached; fine varied dark brown patina.
Stuart Hollander Collection, St. Louis
Tom Alexander, St. Louis, 1993
Ezra, Kate, "A Human Ideal in African Art",
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986, p. 13
According to Kate Ezra, A Human Ideal in African Art, 1986, pages 11-13, "When asked about the roles of figure sculpture, Bamana elders often used the terms mafilè fèn, fleli fèn, and lajè fèn, meaning 'something to look at' or 'something to see.' In addition to figure sculpture, these terms were applied to other types of objects as well. They convey the idea that art, for the Bamana, is something that attracts your attention, focuses your eye, and directs your thoughts. Like an ornament, it makes the performance or ritual more interesting to look at. In fact Bamana often define their role of figure sculpture in a particular context as that of a masiri, 'decoration', and the sculptures themselves are usually lavishly decorated while in use. They are made to glisten with oil and glitter with brightly colored cloth and beads, usually removed after the performance.
The contexts in which figure sculpture is used as 'something to see' are varied. In some villages in the area known as Kouroulamine, west of Bougouni, a figure sculpture was included in a celebration called madamu. For this performance by the young men's ton, or association, the boys sing the praises of the blacksmiths and the best farmers. While they danced, a sculpture decorated with beads and metal jewelry was displayed on the dance area. Described as a fleli fèn, 'something to see,' the sculpture created an additional level of visual interest, and was a form of silent praise for the blacksmiths, tangible evidence of one of their most difficult carving feats.
A similar idea was expressed by an elderly blacksmith in the Kouroulamine area. When asked about figure sculptures, he immediately thought of the small human figures carved on some sogoni kun antelope headdresses from this area. He said he had first seen figure sculptures at performances by new initiates of Jo society and was so impressed by them he decided to add them to his antelope carvings as a masiri, or 'decoration.' Not only were they wonderful to look at, the blacksmith told me, but they demonstrated the carver's tremendous skill and in this sense they were virtuoso works.
A similar intent may also explain the presence of figures on other types of Bamana objects. Just as human figures are often incorporated into Bamana antelope headdresses, they are sometimes also seen on Ndomo society masks...The presence of the human figure on these masks and implements may well be intended to increase the allure, the eye-catching appeal, of the works."
cf. Sotheby's, New York, May 15, 2009, lot 182; Sotheby's, Paris, December 6, 2005, lot 29, for similar examples.