In Focus

Seated male figure (1994.200.McD)

Among the Baule people of central Côte d'Ivoire, barren women consult male or female diviners (komien), who become possessed by a nature spirit (asie usu) or by a Mbra (deity) during the diving ritual. To welcome the spirits and, thus, encourage them to speak, diviners beautify shrine rooms with decorations and sculptures. Baule clients may not look at these figures, which are usually concealed under white cloths. Yet, seen or not, the presence of the sculptures acknowledges the special relationship between the diviner and the gods and spirits.

Because carving styles for spirit figures—whether they represent nature spirits or spirit spouses—are similar, it is difficult to ascertain a sculpture's original function unless it has been seen in situ. This male figure is presumed to have been owned by a Baule diviner because of its seated pose and gesture. Divination display figures typically depict a male, seated on a stool, holding his long three-braided beard with his left hand and pressing his abdomen with his right. Despite his muscular buttocks and youthful calves, the sitter is a wise and elderly man, as indicated by his beard. Regardless of his or her age, a subject in African art is generally portrayed in the prime of life. The sculpture's carefully groomed hair, scarification marks that denote he has been initiated into adult society, short fingernails and toenails, and contemplative expression indicate he also represents a civilized Baule man. The figure was once clothed, as indicated by the lighter color of the wood in the area of his loins.

When in ritual use the figure possibly would have been washed, smeared with kaolin, and then rubbed with palm oil. Extensive traces of the encrustation that this produces can be found on the sculpture, particularly visible around the line of the jaw, the waist, and around the feet and the base of the sculpture.

The stool—a concave seat atop a stepped base—is a style that is used in southeastern Côte d'Ivoire and southern Ghana. This type of stool normally has two legs projecting from a center post or four legs that project symmetrically from the center of the stool. As if to lessen the visual confusion of too many pairs of legs, the sculptor eliminated one pair, replacing them with the figure's legs. When viewed in profile, the figure's legs appear to echo the shape of the stool's back legs, creating a lozenge. Just as the frontal view of the figure offers a balanced asymmetry, the profile is equally symmetrical.

The sculpture was acquired circa 1930 by Isaac Païlès (1895-1978), a Russian painter working in Paris. It is believed to be one of the earliest Baule sculptures brought to Europe after Côte d'Ivoire was vanquished by the French in 1910. Features such as the hole carved between the buttocks and stool to hold a loincloth (now missing) in place, the mouth shaped in a figure eight, the symbols of civilization, the style of the stool, the polished surface, and the craftsmanship attest to Baule skill and artistry of the distant past.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 104.

  • DMA unpublished material.