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An unknown Baga masterpiece
Within the corpus of the Baga snakes, this recently discovered example holds a prominent place. The vast majority of these sculptures were collected by Hélène and Henri Kamer in the 1950s, and are now held in the greatest museums in the world. This work, even though it was not collected by them (Hélène Leloup: personal communication) was certainly brought back at the same time. For reference, we can cite the comparable snakes that were collected by the Kamer: the one belonging to the Musée du Quai Branly, now exhibited in the Pavillon des Sessions (Louvre, Paris, 71.1989.49.1), certainly one the best known, it has been offered to the museum by Jacques Lazard under Hélène Leloup instigation, another one from the Menil Collection in Houston (V909 or 9009), two other examples from the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1978.206.101 and 1978.412.339) formerly in the Rockefeller collection, another snake sold by Leloup to John Huston, and finally, the one formerly part of the Pierre Matisse collection, now in a private collection (see Sotheby's, 16 May 2008, lot 58). For other similar snakes, see: the Geneva Barbier-Mueller Museum figure; the Cleveland Museum of Art example (1960.37) published in Robbins and Nooter (1989 fig.247); and the Rietberg Museum figure in Zurich, acquired from Emil Storrer.
The present unknown work perfectly fits this homogeneous group of monoxyle sculptures. The body dramatically flares at the extremities and frames a corpulent bulge at the center which then narrows severely at the neck to delineate the animal's head. The medial ridge which runs the entire length of the body's surface follows the shape of the carving by shrinking at throat level. The profile shows a powerful movement upward with spring-like tension expressed through the curves and counter-curves. The superb painterly surface is enhanced with black, red and yellow pigments forming triangular geometric patterns and further reinforces the form's rhythm. The head, cut in a lozenge shape, is highly stylized and also enhanced by sets of color. The strong plasticity of this bansonyi snake places it among the major Baga works of art, and, further, that it can be positioned as a major work of monumental African statuary, which is extremely rare.
The cultural context
The Baga, Landuman and Nalu peoples, with similar ethnic and artistic characteristics, live along the coastal lagoons of southern Guinea. Six months each year, the surrounding marshes are flooded, making it difficult to reach a large part of Baga territory. This relative isolation explains the lack of early field studies. The anthropologist Denise Paulme (1909-1998) lived among the Baga during the 1950's, but was never able to attend the initiation closing ceremonies (Stoullig-Martin, 1988). It was not until the publication of Frederick Lamp's research (Art of the Baga, New York, 1996) that deeper discussions could held around the subject.
The spirit Ninkinanka, of the snake called bansonyi or Mantsho-or-no-Pön, reigned among the Baga people, who feared him. He was the spirit who could bring rain, provide wealth, and children to infertile women. Each section within a village was represented by the wooden image of a serpent, like a totemic animal. The bansonyi headcrest appeared during competitions between different clans. Young people dressed in a complex suit topped by the representation of the snake faced each other during dances that were judged by women. The snake also manifested itself during the final phase of the girls and boys initiation and at the beginning initiation ceremonies for young adults. Associated with the rainbow, considered the source of the rivers and a marker of the end of the rains, the snake evokes the idea of life and death, the beginning and the end (Lamp, 1996).
Discovery of the tall wooden snakes
Shortly after Guinea's independence and following the emergence of the political party RDA (African Democratic Rally), winner of the presidential election in 1958 with Ahmed Sékou Touré, it was decided to modernize the country and stop local customs. Baga ancient traditions were therefore quickly banned and, finally, forgotten (Lamp 1996). This certainly explains the arrival in Europe of several cultural objects that had fallen into disuse. Thus, Baga snakes appeared on the market in 1957, following Hélène and Henri Kamer's journey in the Baga country. Hélène Kamer, who was living at that time in front of the Musée de l'Homme, showed these pieces to Denis Paulme, the African art curator of the museum, who heard about these objects when she was working in Guinea without seen any of them. These rare objects, highly abstract and painterly, in stark contrast to the more classical African art usually presented in the galleries of that time, were quickly appreciated and acquired by major museums and private collectors. A few other examples were also brought back a little later between 1957 and 1961, following the success in Europe of these the serpentine sculptures.
Jacqueline Delange, in her article The Bansonyi of the Baga Country (we would like to thank Hélène Leloup for lending us these documents), notes that the snake, a fairly common animal in sub-Saharan Africa, is strangely rarely represented in native statuary. She lists the "great serpent of the Dogon" called imina na (cf. Musée du Quai Branly, 71.1931.74.1935 for an imina na mask collected by the Dakar-Djibouti Mission) and the Bwa mask surmounted by a serpent (cf. Musée du Quai Branly, 73.1962.6.1), as the only carved images of this animal. According to Jacqueline Delange, it is more frequently represented on smaller objects such as 'Nago wooden painted cups for example, or on Lobi, Senufo or Bamoun brass jewelry. We can also find the snake figuration painted on many West African huts, or even integrated into a complex allegorical composition as some elements of Bacongo[sic] furniture carved pieces or architectural pieces of the Bamun-Bamileke. More often we can see it suggested by a sinuous line, a pattern on some Dogon and Bamana cultural sculptures.'
Although the wooden statues of the bansonyi serpent we were long unknown, the importance of this mythical being in the Baga cosmology is attested by many stories. In 1943, Beatrice Appia published children's drawings depicting scenes of everyday life in their villages. On these images appears the serpentine figure, placed with a cage on the head of a single carrier, the whole structure being hidden underneath a costume.