Magnificent Baga Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother, Guinea Coast, Guinea
Lot 152W
Magnificent Baga Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother, Guinea Coast, Guinea
Sold for US$ 305,000 inc. premium
Auction Details
Magnificent Baga Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother, Guinea Coast, Guinea Magnificent Baga Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother, Guinea Coast, Guinea
Lot Details
Magnificent Baga Mask with a Superstructure Representing a Beautiful Mother, Guinea Coast, Guinea
d'mba/yamban
Wood, brass, metal
height 47in (119.5cm)

POVENANCE
Private Collection, New York, acquired ca. 1970

EXHIBITED
New York: Great Works of Africa and the Pacific, L & M Arts Gallery, 9-17 May 2008

ILLUSTRATED
Yale-Van Rijn Archive of African Art, No. 0093055

For similar examples, see:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.206.17)
The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA 1957.97)
The African Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institute (98-28-1)
Yale University Art Gallery (2006.51.390), and
Musée Picasso, Paris, from the collection of Pablo Picasso

"D'mba's flat, pendant breasts are a symbol of motherhood and reveal the selfless dedication with which she has nursed numerous children to adulthood. Her coiffure consists of intricately braided rows of hair and a high crest down the center. This hairstyle is not a characteristic of the Baga, but rather one of the Fulbe people, who inhabit the Futa Jallon mountains, where the Baga ancestors once lived. The coiffure serves as a reminder to the Baga of their origins in the Futa Jallon. The face, neck, and breasts of the bust are decorated with linear patterns: a horizontal line from the cheek to the ear, a curved line from the ear along the jawline, a line connecting these two lines, all ending at a circular line that surrounds the entire face. Often on each cheek, just below the eyes, there are two short carved lines—the mark of Baga ethnicity. Embellishments are sometimes added as well, including painted wooden ornaments attached to the ear or pendants attached to the nasal septum.

Unlike masked representations from other African cultures, which may represent ethereal spirits or ancestors, D'mba is not a "spirit," but instead is loosely described by the Baga themselves as simply an "idea." D'mba is an abstraction of the ideal of the female role in Baga society. She is honored as the universal mother and is the vision of woman at the zenith of her power, beauty, and affective presence. Although D'mba is not a spiritual being in the Baga sense of the term, nor a deity, she is a being of undeniable spiritual power. The Baga conceive of D'mba as a servant of sorts—inspiring young women with the strength to bear children and raise them to adulthood, inspiring young men to cooperative excellence in agriculture, and inspiring the ancestors to contribute toward the continuance of community well-being.

During performances, the massive headdress is worn with a costume of raffia and cloth. In the past, the D'mba masquerade was performed at least twice a year before the rainy seasons. D'mba would also appear to dance at festive occasions such as marriages and funerals, and in honor of special guests. In contemporary Baga culture, D'mba performances have not been as widely embraced as in the past, so they are rarely witnessed today.

The origins of the D'mba headdress, like many other aspects of Baga material culture, remain the subject of conjecture. Most Baga elders suggest that D'mba was not brought by their nomadic ancestors, but rather created after their arrival to their current home in Guinea's coastal region. Interestingly enough, the cloth shawl worn by D'mba during performances, usually dark indigo or black, has always been cotton cloth imported from Europe, never of African manufacture. In fact, it seems that many Baga masquerades developed in the twentieth century use European factory printed cloth for the costume." (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

According to William Rubin in his pioneering work Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art (1984: p. 275-88), "Among the 1907 drawings that can be linked to tribal sculpture, none are more revealing of Picasso's ways of thinking and working than those related to Nimba, assumed at the time to be the Baga people's goddess of fertility. In Baga art, the Nimba-type head is associated with huge dance masks, and with smaller figure sculptures that have human bodies. There is no question that Picasso saw the dance mask (at the Musee de l'Homme, Paris, acquired in 1902) during his visits to the Trocadero; in 1907 it was the only such object in the Musee d'Ethnographie. This mask shares some but not all of the characteristic of "class" Nimbas: the long arched head is cantilevered forward, its projection intensified by an extraordinary large nose; the head culminates in a low crest, slightly hollowed out, which passes from the forehead almost to the back of the neck. The latter, a long cylinder, separates the head from the bust, which is characterized by large but flattened breasts, below which project the four supports held by the dancer. When in use, a large raffia dress, which descended from just below the breasts, covered the dancer entirely, though he could see out through small holes bored between the breasts.

While the Nimba mask was used exclusively for dances and thus was seen in movement, the smaller, integral "Nimba-headed" figures were stationary objects whose purpose is not known; in 1907, the Trocadero owned one of these as well. They were also among the types of smaller objects occasionally available in the curio shops, and it is very probably that the pair of "Nimba-headed" figures Picasso owned were purchased by him at the time he made the drawings in question.

The large pencil drawing Head, 1907, Pencil on Paper [refer to figure 1 in printed catalog] which - with a similar less-developed study (Zervos VI, 907) - is probably Picasso's first elaboration of a Nimba-derived motif, is already quite distanced from what we are considering its source of inspiration. Nevertheless, Reinhold Hohl's argument that its crest, a chain of almost semicircular forms, relates to a Nimba is ultimately persuasive. Hohl, however, associated Picasso's crest simply to the long crest of the Trocadero Nimba mask, which encircles its coiffure, as does the more ornamental one in Head, 1907, Crayon and Pencil on Paper. Yet the Nimba crest is straight-edged. It appears to me that while Picasso retained the idea of a crest from either the Trocadero mask or from the smaller "Nimba-headed" figures, the rhythm of near semicircles that characterize its appearance in Head was extrapolated not from a Nimba crest, but from the sequence formed by the round nose and the curved forehead with its echoing projection - a rhythm we see in his own "Nimba-headed" figure's profile. Such a sequence cannot be disengaged from the Baga mask or figure then at the Trocader. His own Nimbas also clearly provided the prototype for the nose in Head."

Rubin later argues (pp 326-28), "Picasso's acquisition of the shoulder mask after the inception of his long-term relationship with Marie-Thérèse in 1925 has a certain appropriateness about it. Marie-Thérèse was for Picasso the incarnation of sensuality and by extension, of fertility. The full shapes, salient nose, and large prominent breasts of classic Nimbas would have certainly reminded Picasso of Marie-Thérèse even if he had not been aware - as, indeed, he was - of the mask's cult associations to fertility. It is not by chance that Picasso's Nimba stood like a clan totem in the entrance of the chateau at Boisgeloup where he executed the large plaster busts and head of Marie-Thérèse. When Brassaï, who went there to photograph these sculptures, described them as "resembling some barbarian goddess," he may well have had Picasso's Nimba in mind.

The "carry-over" from Picasso's Nimba to his sculptural work of that moment is strongest in Bust of a Woman (Maria Therese Walter), Bronze, 1933 [refer to figure 2 in printed catalog] and Head of a Woman. As was customary for him, the motif was assimilated in a highly personal way. Of the two sculptures, Bust of a Woman is closer to the Nimba masks because of the suggestion of Marie-Thérèse's sumptuous breasts, thought the almost continuous silhouette from the hairdo through the forehead and the large nose has closer affinities with the type of Nimba mask in the Rietberg Museum than the classic one owned by Picasso. Given the semicircular projection on it forehead, the latter is more closely echoed - at least in the upper contours of its silhouette - by Head of a Woman.

The very particular language of forms in classic Nimba masks is charged with secondary sexual connotations that Picasso would not only absorb but extend. Such connotations, however, enter tribal art in a less conscious, less intuitive or individual manner than in Picasso's work. The curved profile of the Nimba's nose, in combination with its singularly narrow front view, has inescapable connotations of the mons veneris and female sex, especially in conjunction with the unusual little button mouth projections just below it. The eroticism of the Nimba seems to have inspired Picasso to enrich and complicate these associations in Head of a Woman, where he imprints upon the sumptuous female aspects of Marie-Thérèse an allusion to his male genitals, in the form of the phallic nose that projects between a pair of globelike eyes."

Saleroom notices

  • Please note the following changes and further information for this lot: PROVENANCE Private Collection New York, Acquired ca. 1970 EXHIBITED New York: Great Works of Africa and the Pacific, L & M Arts Gallery, 9-17 May 2008 ILLUSTRATED Yale-Van Rijn Archive of African Art, No. 0093055 Photo Source: Lamp Files
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