In Focus

A Bamana terracotta vessel

The Bamana, a Mande-speaking culture, are sedentary agriculturalists who for centuries have lived in west-central Mali. Before the introduction of imported metal, plastic, and enamel wares, women made a variety of terracotta vessels to serve a host of utilitarian, aesthetic, and ritual purposes. They belonged to a distinct social class called nyamakalaw comprised of blacksmiths, woodcarvers, leatherworkers, weavers, and potters. Membership in nyamakalaw is not voluntary but is one's birthright and one's heritage because of the rule of restrictive marriage: farmers and traders do not marry members of nyamakalaw. According to their oral history, the culture heroes were smelting iron, carving wood, and making pots before the Bamana could hunt, farm, or cook. Mythical/ancestral nyamakalaw invented the tools and techniques essential to religious worship, agriculture, warfare, and state-building.

Bamana potters (numumusow, meaning "blacksmith women") make pots as did their foremothers; they use neither prepared clay not a sophisticated potters' wheel for forming vessels. They do not use kilns for firing their vessels. The lengthy and laborious process of making Bamana vessels comprises nine steps: 1) locating and digging clay out of the ground, which may involve men using pick axes and hoes to break up the ground, and observing sexual taboos which appease the nyama (vital force) in the clay; 2) drying the raw clay and removing impurities; 3) soaking the purified clay overnight; 4) tempering it with pot shards ground to a fine grain; 5) mixing the refined clay body with water until it is the right consistency to form into balls according to the convex molds (made from old or damaged pots) that will be used; 6) forming the pots, using a convex mold followed by coiling techniques and turning them in a basin filled with fine gravel around the vessel as they raise the side walls; 7) decorating them with corncobs, twisted-string roulettes, red slip or more clay to model images, and burnishing the vessel with smooth pebbles or strings of baobab seeds; 8) firing the completely dry pots in the open, on a bed of hard wood or straw and cow dung, where wood is less plentiful; 9) sealing and blackening the hot vessels with a vegetable bath and smoldering process.

Vessels that would be brought by visitors to one's residence are usually decorated. During the late 20th century, decorative patterning was made with wooden and plant-fiber roulettes or painted with red clay slip, but rarely featured animals modeled in low relief, like the example in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection does [2014.25]. The availability of painted pottery wares from the Inland Niger Delta and other areas of the Mande world may have influenced Bamana customers' choices. In the case of lizard imagery, it may be that this animal is not as revered as it was fifty years ago, when the lizard was considered a gne (family totem) and could be found on carved door locks as well as ceramic vessels. It was viewed as possessing protective powers and, therefore, prohibited from being touched, killed, or eaten.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2014.

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