Biography of a Bamana Female Figure

In 2022, the Museum of Ethnography will begin greeting the public at its new building with, among other things, a freshly installed permanent exhibition tasked with presenting its expansive collection from a number of different angles.  In a section entitled Object Biographies, for example, visitors will be confronted with artefacts whose stories—unlike those of the majority of the 200,000 odd objects museum storehouses hold—are either more or less known, or can be revealed through research.  In the introductory area to the section, the visitor will learn by example how such research is conducted, i.e. how the researcher examines the uses made of an artefact in various contexts, the mutual effects that come into play between the artefact, its users, and its environment, and any meanings the object has come to have attached to it. 

Among the artefacts destined for this part of the installation is a nearly 60-centimetre tall, carved, dark-stained hardwood figure depicting a slender, standing woman that, based on various considerations of style, can be identified as having originated with the Bamana people of Mali.  In terms of appearance, the figure’s forward protruding head is flattened at the sides, while its face, composed almost upon a single plane, features copper-button-like eyes, a long, thin, arching nose with prominent nostrils, and a tiny, downward-puckering mouth.  The top of the head is adorned by a crown of hair in three bands, rectangularly tiered in the back and covered over its entire surface in tiny grooves.  The figure’s shoulders are rounded and its breasts conical and pronounced.  Its arms are short with respect to the body and feature enormous hands carved in flattened, forward-facing planes ending in individually carved fingers. At the back of its cylindrical torso, the figure’s buttocks bulge decidedly outward and downward toward separately carved straight legs ending in chunky feet.  The various parts of the body are incised with lines indicating tattoo marks.

The do nyeleni, as it was locally known, meaning ‘little Nyele’ or the ‘first girl inducted into the dob,’ was an accessory used by men and women alike in the rituals of secret societies (dob or dyo) as a representation of an ancestor or, alternately, an ideal wife. 

From later information, this particular figure is estimated to have been carved sometime around the very late 19th or early 20th century.  Our first record of it dates to 1911, when it was featured in the catalogue of an ‘Oriental Exhibition’ held at the Budapest Artists’ House.  The catalogue, which included a colour illustration, indicated that it was a ‘Sudanese figure’ owned by Lajos Kozma.  The Art House Oriental Exhibition is widely hailed as Europe’s first exhibition featuring contemporary art displayed side-by-side and on par with artefacts from other cultures, though in truth, in August of 1910, just a few months prior, a similar event had been held at the Kaposvár Public Elementary School, for which native József Rippl-Rónai delivered the opening address.  Both exhibitions were organised jointly by architect / furniture designer Lajos Kozma and writer Miklós Vitéz, who acquired the required exotic artefacts in Paris.  Their source in this was, in all probability, József Brummer, a sculptor who had, upon relocation to Paris, turned to trading in arts and antiquities.  As a protagonist of primitivism, Brummer was known for collecting objects from distant cultures and passing them on to artists, in particular to those on the vanguard of early 20th-century artistic trends, who were less interested in what they had meant in their original context than they were in drawing inspiration from the surprising lexicon of forms they represented.

As for the Museum of Ethnography’s Bamana figure, following the close of the Oriental Exhibition, it appears to have found new life as part of the interiors designed by its owner, Lajos Kozma, starting with a featured spot on the nightstand in a child’s bedroom.  The furniture with which it was paired was produced during Kozma’s neo-Baroque period (known as ‘Kozma-Baroque’), i.e. in the early 1920s.  Whether the figure in this case was intended to play the role of a doll or should be seen instead as a precursor to the designer’s later modernist work cannot be said with certainty..

Whatever the case, in the 1930s Kozma did transition from ‘Baroque’ to modernist design and from that point onward, frequently positioned objects from his own collection, including the Bamana figure (sometimes in several different arrangements) in the interior photos he took for publication in articles and books.  Its silhouette can even be discerned on his design plans.  Other items featured in this role included Japanese engravings, African masks, and various statuettes (usually female)—objects that might have formed part of the home or studio decor of foreign artists or been found in the collections of noted aficionados or collectors of art and antiquities.  In imparting this splash of modernism to his upper class home designs, Kozma was presumably attempting to keep with international trends, though he was also projecting something of his own home environment, as surviving photographs of his personal living space demonstrate that there, too, he enjoyed the presence of such objects.

Dining room of the Havas Villa, designed by Lajos Kozma, 1931   Photo credit:  Hungarian Museum of Architecture and Monument Protection Documentation Center (MDK) Photo Archive, 092.908N.
Dining room of the Havas Villa, designed by Lajos Kozma, 1931 Photo credit: Hungarian Museum of Architecture and Monument Protection Documentation Center (MDK) Photo Archive, 092.908N.

Another image of the Bamana figure from the same period shows it in the background of a portrait of photographer György Kepes taken by József Pécsi.  In this case, it is possible that Kozma, who designed the furnishings for Pécsi’s studio, placed the figure in the manner of a trademark. 

Interestingly, in other situations, the figure stands rather for the quality of modernism itself, as in an interior detail photograph bearing the hallmark of furniture designer Pál Fábry in which it is seen standing on a little chest of drawers.  In the early days of his career, Fábry had worked in Kozma’s office and later designed in a style ‘strikingly similar’ to that of his mentor.  It is likely, therefore, that Kozma had loaned him the figure for the purposes of the photograph, perhaps as an expression of their shared trend preferences. 

In another photograph, this one undated, the figure turns up in the studio of Miklós Vitéz, along with a number of other ‘exotic’ items (Buddhas, Benin bronzes, Japanese engravings).  Whether it came into Vitéz’s possession before Kozma’s death in 1948 or after can only be guessed, but in either case, the two men had remained in close contact since their joint work on the Oriental Exhibition, and it was from Vitéz’s estate that the figure—in the company of four other African artefacts—was eventually purchased by the Museum of Ethnography in 1956.

The figure’s first ‘appearance’ in its life at the museum took place in 1963, when it was set in a glass case—alongside other masks and carvings—in representation of Western and Central African art in an exhibition entitled The People of Black Africa On the Road to Liberation, held in the ceremonial hall of the Hungarian National Museum.  Over the course of the next twenty years, it featured several times in printed works on the tribal art and folklore of the African continent, in each case accompanied by ethnographic information on its origins and use.  It was also spotlighted in an exhibition of valuable artefacts and accompanying publication celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Museum of Ethnography’s founding.

Since the turn of the millennium, scientific interest in the figure has not only grown, but also diversified.  It has been loaned for use in two exhibitions, for example—one on noted representatives of 20th-century art and architecture and one on depictions of the female form—as well as in a number of different publications. 

Recently, its estimated value has risen considerably in the wake of an international project aimed at identifying tribal artists active from the1960s onward, if not by name, then by the styles in which they worked.  As a result, the Museum of Ethnography’s Bamana figure can now be definitively attributed to a master carver from the Ségou region dubbed “The Master of the Raptor Profile,” among whose surviving works the standing figure is somewhat rare.  As regards the piece’s value, more than one ‘raptor profile’ figure has come up for sale in past decades, including one once owned by Henri Matisse that in 2016 sold at auction for a price of 782,500 dollars.  The event may be seen as an indication of the value of the Museum of Ethnography’s Ségou-style Bamana figure on the international art and antiquities market, especially considering that the auction catalogue cited its display at the 1911 Oriental Exhibition in Budapest as a specific point of reference.

Beyond the issue of monetary value, however, what stands out from even these few key biographical notes is the sheer variety of contexts—national and international; social and cultural; artistic and ethnographic—that the figure has inhabited so aptly over its lifespan, and in this light, though it has certainly been called many things before, its museum ranking as a ‘star artefact’ is a title it has definitely earned.

 

Female figure

Mali, Bamana, turn of the 20th century

Purchased from György Szerdelyi (from the estate of Miklós Vitéz)

Museum of Ethnography 56.24.2