Ointment pot with effigy cover

Baule peoples
20th–mid 20th century
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General Description

African women in traditional societies enhanced their natural beauty with scarification and cosmetic preparations. For example, they applied black kohl to their eyes, painted their faces and bodies with a reddish powder or paste, and moisturized their skin with shea butter. These and other cosmetic substances required containers for mixing and storage. Natural objects such as gourds and shells were available to all, but those who could afford to stored their cosmetics in pots, boxes, and bowls artfully carved by sculptors.

Lidded containers, like this ointment pot, were used to store shea butter, a traditional lubricant that has been a staple ingredient in Western brand-name moisturizers since the late 20th century. The lid is carved in the form of a female bust, the head of which serves as a knob. This figure's downcast eyes, scarification marks, and long neck reflect Baule ideals of feminine beauty and comportment. The bowl of the container, which represents a water vessel Baule women once made, is set on a stylized stool.

Religious sculpture in traditional Baule society was often kept out of public view. Utilitarian objects like this ointment box were elaborately decorated and allowed artists to publicly advertise their skill and creativity in the hope of attracting valuable commissions for religious carvings.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.
  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 236-237.