A Nature Spirit, Asie usu, Statuette by The Rockefeller Master
by Alain-Michel Boyer
At first glance, this remarkable statuette – a tour de force of Baule sculpture – offers two surprises. First, there’s its striking originality: the sculpture breaks with the stylistic norms of the Baule people. Second, and even more enticing, it presents obvious similarities with a related masterpiece: the famous “Seated Male Figure” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The resemblance – despite the female characteristics and upright position of this figure – is astonishing: the same artistic representation of the legs, which form a rectangle when viewed from the front; the matching shoulders that pitch forward and press inward; the same long and slender neck, an indication of beauty among the Baule people, hence the common expression “i komi ti kè waka sona” ("Your neck is as beautiful as that [the neck] of a statuette"); and, above all, the same face framed within a recessed oval, lips pursed, an aquiline nose carved into a triangle, and small, protruding almond-shaped eyes. Both works also feature an identical flaring from the forearms to the elbows and from the calves to the back of the knees, giving the illusion that the various segments interlock, like a telescope. This is emphasized in this standing female by the stretched out arms, pressed against the naked torso that is decorated simply with two juxtaposed scarifications. The hands, on either side of the navel set off in a lozenge shape, highlight the idea of lineage and procreation in this female statue (“kotoa bla yolè ngwan nyama,” the Baule say: “It is via the navel that the woman holds the cord of life”). Not only that, but the two statues have identical breasts, barely suggested and amazingly small, which, by accentuating the androgyny of these Baule figures, reinforces the resemblance between these two figures. Yet this depiction of an androgynous figure, one of the most unique Baule compositions, offers an astonishing cultural synthesis with the idea of a lost original unity which can only be preserved through artistic creativity1.
All these stylistic clues indicate that the two pieces are clearly by the same hand, a single sculptor, identified by several modern-day Baule as having belonged to a Baule sub-group, the Elomwé (or Elomoué): “Elomwé isa usu yaoye” (“That is definitely the style of the Elomwé”). This artist apparently worked in the main community in Tiassalé, on the banks of the River Bandama, where it is joined by the River Nzi from the east. This confluence has always been an important creative center and commercial crossroads2. Since the 17th century three Akan peoples –the Baule, the Abbey, and a number of Akye – have lived there together. And the Abbey and Akye diviners also possessed statuettes of spirits before a sharp decline, partly due to the spread of iconoclastic, syncretistic sects to southern Côte d’Ivoire. It is no surprise to find the harmonious combination of several influences in this piece from the edge of Baule territory. While the statuette is certainly the work of a Baule sculptor, it also reveals stylistic inspirations from the Abbey, the Akye, and, from further east, the Anyi (also Akan, with whom the three peoples were in contact). Several artistic components reflect these diverse influences: a pared-back sculptural approach, relying on the allusive and elementary; the extreme slenderness of the figure surmounted by a recessed ovoid head; the open structure of the legs; a body which appears to have been assembled from cylinders, with long and slender telescoping limbs, featuring what appear to be creases.
Were these two statuettes in use at the same time, in the hands of a single officiant? There is no way of telling for certain. But their similar size could support this suggestion (if the Met’s figure were standing, its height would correspond to this type of representation). A diviner often needs two statuettes, one male, the other female, in reference to the two sexual aspects of a spirit. To be clear, they do not evoke two spirits, but just one in a dualist representation of the universe. This is true of the "Pair of Diviner’s Figures" (1978.412.390-.391) – which is also famous but in a very different style, from another sub-group based 200 kilometers further north – and which was also donated in the same year, 1969, by Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The spirit’s position of meditative anticipation is designed to show its role as an advocate, through the intensity of its presence. For although it is theoretically indomitable, invisible for the majority of humans, it nevertheless agrees to establish an alliance (tukpè) with a person whom it selects, by possessing him, to become a diviner-healer (komyenfwé). After a pact (anuanzè), it grants him the power of clairvoyance, undertaking to inform him about certain existential decisions, the curing of disease and eradication of evil spells. The spirit agrees to transfer itself into a civilised being ("usu aka ti sran": "The spirit takes on the appearance of a human being") on the condition it is honoured by a statuette which becomes, not its representation, but the “house” (tranwlè) in which it resides (usu i tran olè)3.
By magnifying a moment of balance, a delicacy combined with a dynamic internal vitality and harmonious lines, it aims to express a repressed energy: “Kakatiwa i ti ke blo ninga mo besuti sa” (“The spirit, become statuette, is a tamed wild animal”). Therefore the appeal of the figure – exposed to everyone’s gaze, not only that of the patient, who has come for a consultation – gives it inestimable prestige, which is in turn conferred upon the diviner.
1Regarding androgyny in African art, see Alain-Michel Boyer, Les Arts d’Afrique, Paris, Hazan, 2007, p. 191-201.
2Tiassalé also became the main centre for collecting Baule works, brought to Grand-Bassam, the capital at that time. Although much trading between people once took place there (despite it now being paradoxically some way from the main trade routes), Tiassalé was very soon in contact with the early explorers who followed the Bandama from the port of Grand-Lahou and set up a trading post there. In 1893, Captain Marchand founded a colonial administration there and several civil servants lived there at the end of the 19th century (including Georges Thomann, one of the first collectors of masks and statuettes, in 1894 and again in 1902).
3See Alain-Michel BOYER, Baule, Milano, 5 Continents Editions, “Visions of Africa”. Translation: Julian Convoy. 2008, p. 34-35.