Very few examples of this type of statue are known. This Bassa female statue from Liberia represents a young nubile girl whose transition from childhood to adulthood was overseen by a women's initiation society known as Sande.
- Former Roger Bédiat collection (1897-1958), Abidjan
Former Hélène and Philippe Leloup collection, Paris
Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2018.2.1), Gift Société Fimalac Participations.
The work’s original context
This female statue, only very few similar examples of which are known, presents a profoundly touching and rare image. It represents a young nubile girl whose transition from childhood to adulthood was overseen by a women's initiation society known as Sande. This secret society is particularly active among the Bassa people, a population of the Kru language group, primarily occupying the Rivercess and Grand Bassa areas of Liberia, with a small minority in the east of Sierra Leone1.
Described as of 16682 by Dutch doctor and geographer Olfert Dapper, the Sande women's initiation society, also known as Bundu among some populations, exists within numerous groups in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea3. It originated in the Gola society4 and spread to the Kpelle, Gbandi, Toma, Mano, Gio, Dei, Vai, Sherbo, Temne and Mende. Although the masks used by the Sande society are well known and relatively well catalogued, particularly among the Mende of Sierra Leone, statues are much rarer and hypotheses as to their use and context have not been conclusively verified.
Here, the artist may have depicted a difficult transitional state commonly known as adolescence in the West through the delicate shaping of this slender body, the subtle restraint of the gesture and the representation of the budding chest. Among many African populations, this complex physical and biological transformation corresponding to puberty, associated with a sometimes brutal process of social transition, was traditionally overseen by male and female initiation societies that acted as custodian of ancestral values and traditions.
During this long or short period of seclusion outside the village, the trials and rites of passage that young initiates underwent were designed to integrate each individual into the community and to guarantee the community's cohesion by acting as a unifying cement to pass on the group’s history, myths, rules and taboos. Fundamental pillars of the social but also political and religious life and many communities, these institutions play an important pedagogical role, primarily ensuring social control and moral regulation. In the case of women’s initiations like the Sande, they particularly aim to prepare young girls for what society considers their intrinsic destiny: marriage and motherhood. According to Hélène Joubert “the sculptor invokes the harshness of the ordeals undergone by the adolescent, on the child-like face marked by fatigue and pain.The small sets of glass beads and pendants bleached with kaolin worn on the hips and ears, the coiffure made from plant fibres, and the brass leg bands complete this accurate portrayal.”5
5 Joubert, 2016, p. 110.
The Sande women’s initiation society
Spread across a vast region encompassing Sierra Leone, Guinea, northwest and central Liberia6, the Sande secret society was responsible for educating young girls entering puberty in order to shape them into responsible adults exhibiting exemplary moral and sexual conduct once reintegrated into their respective communities. This initiation was comprised of several phases, and lasted several years7. The first phase consisted of physical trials and a complex learning process, corresponding to a period of initiatory seclusion8 during which the girls underwent a mental and physical transformation. This passage from child to adult took place in a sacred enclosure outside the village. A place of crucial transition designed as a “liminal” space9, the sacred bush or grove was specifically built for each session welcoming new initiates10 who were overseen by senior Sande women. Known as Mayo11 or Ma Zo among the Mende, Mzoa among the Gola and Zo Kema12 among the Vai, the head of the Bundu chapter, generally an elderly woman13, is considered as the custodian of Sande traditions and had ultimate authority over decisions in the event of transgressions or breaches of the society’s laws14. Particularly experienced in pharmacopoeia, she can enter into contact with the spirits and command a force known as Hale15 associated with magic and the “supernatural”16 world. This invisible power is linked to the aquatic world inhabited by the spirits and ancestors. The highest ranks of the Sande society include other middle-aged women known under the term Sowei17. These women educate the initiates and wear the masks18.
restricted to several weeks.
Sometimes escorted by a masked figure, the young girls are separated from the families and taken to the sacred bush where they are dressed in new clothing, have their heads shaved, take on a new name19 and are coated in kaolin. This white clay covering their body symbolises their new state20, marking the break with their former lives and their accession to renaissance and the secrets and magic of the Sande. Protected by the invisible force of the Hale21, the initiates are shaped and moulded to correspond to the physical, moral and socio-cultural ideals upheld. During this period of initiatory seclusion, the young girls follow strict rules and gain new knowledge notably in relation to domestic life so as to become virtuous women displaying exemplary behaviour22 - in other words good wives and fertile mothers. They are also taught the myths, songs and dances, the secrets of pharmacopoeia and magical medicines, the rituals and masquerades of the Sande. Modesty, diligence and respect for one’s seniors23 were core values ingrained in the young girls who had to accomplish numerous chores for the Sande leaders to prepare them to live alongside several wives in a single house24.
Sande girls are renowned for the grace and disciple of the dances they learn in the initiation bush. Yambama, 1974. © Rebecca Busselle
Return to everyday life
After this initial period of seclusion, the young girls, protected by medicines and magical ornaments25 and covered in kaolin, were authorised to return to their families in the village to accomplish various domestic chores26. They returned to the sacred bush at nightfall and sung Sande songs27, sometimes continuing late into the night. As one of the main functions of the Sande was to protect the virginity of the young girls until the end of their training28, all contact with men was to be avoided as far as possible and sexual relations were strictly forbidden during this period of return to everyday life. Anyone breaking these rules faced severe penalties which, in the collective imagination, could lead to death29. At the end of the initiatory process, the religious leaders revealed the most important secrets of the Sande to the young girls.
After being exposed to magic rituals30 designed to test their integrity, the initiates were taken to the river where their kaolin-coated bodies were washed. Now members of the Sande and ready for marriage, they were coiffed and adorned for their return to the village. This reintegration into the adult world was celebrated with great festivities in the community during which the famous Sande masquerades took place. An exception among the sculpted masks of Sub-Saharan Africa, these helmet masks with their instantly recognisable structure are some of the very rare known examples worn by women. These celebrations were also an opportunity for the initiates to demonstrate their skills in the songs and dances learnt in the sacred bush. A source of great pride among the young girls, these performances earned them the admiration and respect of the entire community31.
Bound by an oath to keep anything remotely related to the Sande activities under total secrecy32, the initiates are linked by an unbreakable bond forged by the brutal separation from the world they know, by the secrets they share and by the ordeals they undergo together. Any breach of this obligation by initiates (or the uninitiated attempting to uncover the secrets of this women’s society) can result in, according to local beliefs, infertility, infirmity33 and even death. Moreover, the infertility of some women after their initiation is often seen as the result of a breach of the Sande rules34. The power of the Sande, and secret initiation societies in general, lies in this strict observance of the secrets that units its members; by the same token, information regarding their activities in the sacred wood is therefore naturally incomplete, making it impossible to generalise35. Like the men’s secret society Poro, often compared to the Sande women’s society36, this powerful bond uniting initiates is a “factor in social organization: it excludes those who are not within, and in this way segments social order, which facilitates its preservation”37. Although Sande initiation is not strictly mandatory, this passage through the sacred wood is an essential stage in acquiring the status of a responsible female adult38 respected by the community as a whole. Those not initiated, often considered “incomplete”39 as they lack the knowledge passed on by the Sande, have greater difficulty finding a husband40. As noted by Burkhard Gottschalk: “entry into the secret society is not […] an obligation, but a social necessity that cannot be avoided, as any women choosing to be excluded is cast aside […]”41.
A symbolic death for a ritual rebirth
The first seclusion phase of initiation to the Sande involves a very specific idea of a ritual death and rebirth: “In place of their birth name they receive […] a Sande name to emphasise the irreversible nature of death and birth. The young girls are torn from reality, away from their everyday lives that they understand and are thrown into the white world of spirits and the dead, metamorphosis and reincarnation, into the jiko, literally underwater, in the world of the ancestors […] Sande Hale draws them into a liquid stream that crushes them, pushes them, polishes them to give them a new shape and finally return them to the real world as new beings. The colour white that is renewed throughout their stay in the bush school, is definitively washed away in the river before they leave, it is returned to the Sande Hale and the young girls thus leave the spirit world – they are reborn.”42
The teaching received in the sacred bush to mentally transform each young girl into a ‘social being’ is accompanied by a process of physical transformation incorporating, among some groups, a programme of nourishment43 and great emphasis placed on the care and adornment of the body44, as well as the art of hairstyling to shape them to an ideal of fecund corporeal beauty45.
Female circumcision (or clitoridectomy), the most crucial and feared moment in the process of physical mutation that brings an abrupt end to the child status of the young girls, took place almost immediately, as of the third day of initiatory seclusion46. Although some authors47 claim this operation was carried out to ensure and increase the fertility of the initiates, others highlight the fundamental nature of excision of the clitoris for some groups. This operation reveals the feminine character of genitals still marked by the ambiguity of childhood by removing the clitoris which is considered a masculine element: “removal of the masculine part [...] brings an end to the bisexuality of childhood [...] the clitoris is a masculine part and only its excision [...] makes the woman wholly feminine”48. Ruth B. Phillips who conducted field studies among Sande initiates in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, also emphasises that this process was seen as a means to “change children, whose sexuality is regarded as ambiguous or neutral, into heterosexual, gendered adults”49. She also discusses how the shared pain of the experience creates permanent bonds among the initiates50 seen as foreshadowing the experience of childbirth51. Establishing a link with the male society of Poro, Ruth B. Phillips also emphasises the fact that the shock of the experience tests or physically alters the initiates, inducing an abnormally heightened state of consciousness that reinforces and definitively embeds the sentiment of belonging to the initiation society52. Beyond the anthropological and symbolic considerations which must not be ignored, this operation with its complex, taboo and sometimes age-old implications, above all provides a means to control virtue by removing women's’ sexual desire which would lead to adultery, in the collective imagination of patrilineal and polygamous societies dominated by men.
The same workshop?
Previously attributed to the Bete of Côte d’Ivoire53, the Bassa statue in the former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection brings to light the circulation of people, ideas and choices that illustrate the richness and complexity of Sub-Saharan African arts, beyond the rigid stylistic categorisations that are still too often associated with particular population groups.
nly one statue known to date can be compared to this work. This piece taken from the former Jay C. Leff collection and exhibited in 1964 at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York54 then in 1969 in Pittsburgh, is described as Dan, an ethnic group from northwestern Côte d’Ivoire and eastern Liberia. Other than the stylistic influence of the Dan of Liberia, visible in the structure of the body and the addition of elements for the teeth55, these two works present very similar craftsmanship in the smoothness and fluidity of the lines, the rounded volumes, the marked angles of the shoulders and arms, the hairpiece made from plant fibres, the posture, the face, the hands, legs and navel. Some interesting details like the leg bands and the scarifications suggest that they could come from the same region, and even the same workshop. Indeed, both bear the same motifs on the pelvic area and on the left side of the back which features a stylised snake. This animal, associated with the chthonian and aquatic world, is linked to Sande initiation traditions and practices, as are the turtle, the crocodile and the frog56, which are represented on some masks. These animals are considered as intermediaries between the physical human world and the spiritual world traditionally found underwater. The snake motif in particular is associated with life and regeneration57.
Use and context
It is likely that this type of statue played a role in healing58 or fertility rituals within the Sande society. Nevertheless, as the Sande is fundamentally linked to the notion of secret, the lack of information on their use leaves only potential theories. In addition, their rare presence in Western collections and the fact that no experts who have conducted field studies have been able to precisely observe them in the context of their use leads us to believe that they were carefully protected and hidden from strangers, which could give an indication of their importance and value for their owners.
The majority of Sande statues that have been studied are typically Mende and bear the characteristics of the famous helmet masks. Burkhard Gottschalk gives an interesting description of these statues known as minsere59 among the Sherbo60 of Sierra Leone, particularly with regard to their dimensions and body language61: “most of the statues […] were acquired between 1900 and the Second World War, the oldest dating from 1894. It has been proven that such statues still existed in healer societies [...] in the 1980s and 90s. Their size varies from 50 to 85cm. The arms are not attached to the body and hang either vertically downwards or are slightly bent forward”62.
Some63 believe these statues to be essentially decorative, objects of prestige for their owners64. Others believe they were used by secret healer societies (Yassi, njayei and humoi)65. In reference to the observations of Thomas Joshua Alldridge in the late 19th century, Burkhard Gottschalk notes that the yassi society “owes its importance to a talisman in the form of a mallet […] the mallet is composed of a mixture of crushed herbs that is not only used for physical and spiritual healing, but also to rouse the statues that are coated with the mixture before use. […] the main activity of the yassi secret society is to question the statue as well as divination, […]”66. He explains that “the rare reports written around 1900 are considered verified, however the personal experience of past ethnologists are merely snapshots of the activities of the three secret societies and provide an incomplete image without claiming to represent a universal value”67. Although, as emphasised by Burkhard Gottschalk, these statues “cannot be attributed to one of the three secret societies with certainty […] or to the Sande society”68, the prophylactic function and ritual healing context are a plausible assumption in light of the importance attached to skill in pharmacopoeia for the women at the head of Sande societies. These women must ensure the protection of young initiates, particularly from the fearful ordeal of excision which sometimes results in death. Based on the field studies of Charles Miller III between 1977 and 1988, Daniel Mato noted that the Rivercess Bassa are particularly reputed for their power in pharmacopoeia and traditional medicine69. Charles Miller III also assigned a therapeutic function to these statues that he referred to as “Sande medicine figure”70. According to him, they were used by religious leaders during dances and important Sande initiation rituals.
Lastly, the prophetic function noted by Alldridge and the practice of “questioning” the figure also merits attention. The Bassa statue in the former Durand-Dessert collection could support this hypothesis. Although very different in shape, it shows some of the characteristics seen on the two other Bassa statues, such as abundant motifs featuring scarification, not seen on catalogued Mende statues, the hairpiece made from plant fibres, and the addition of ivory teeth. It also features a navel reliquary71 and missing lower limbs, perhaps articulated.
Body paint and adornments: protection and regeneration
The different motifs seen on the body of the statue, generally associated with scarifications, can also be a reference to the kaolin body paint applied to the face and bodies of the initiates. While some groups covered the bodies of the young girls uniformly, the Rivercess Bassa are distinctive for the particularly elaborate body paint formed of complex and diverse motifs that were repainted every day72.
Lastly, in addition to the hairpiece, the preserved adornments, particularly on the beaded belt encircling the hips of the figure could be a reference to the protective ornaments worn by initiates on the neck, the wrist and the hips. Medicines designed to protect the young girls were sometimes incorporated in the form of a paste in a small antelope horn73, so delicate as to pass as a jewel in itself74.
History of the work and its background
Acquired by Roger Bédiat between the 1920s and 1930s, it was subsequently acquired by Hélène Leloup in the 1950s75 before later joining the collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
Although we know very little about the man, most of the objects known to originate from Roger Bédiat are generally of outstanding artistic quality and demonstrate his curiosity, his open mind and his keen insight. Born in Martinique in 1897, Roger Bédiat (1897-1958) moved to Côte d’Ivoire in the 1920s, first to Grand Bassam then Lahou and Anyama in the suburbs of Abidjan where he established his banana, coffee and kola plantation. He was soon drawn to the artistic productions of the Ivorian people, particularly Akan goldsmithery, and travelled the country with his family forging ties with those he met in order to pursue his passion and expand his collection. Although part of the collection was sold in 1966 in Paris, a large number of the pieces that he amassed during his life in Côte d’Ivoire are now conserved at the Musée des Civilisations de Côte d'Ivoire in Abidjan76.
In the 1950s, the statue passed into the hands of Henri and Hélène Kamer. Exhibition curator and art historian specialised in Dogon art, Hélène Kamer, later Leloup, was also an art dealer in Paris and New York between 1954 and 2005. She set out on her first trip to Africa in 1952 under her maiden name Hélène Copin. On her return to Paris, she met her first husband Henri Kamer (1927-1992). Together, they opened their first gallery in 1954 at 90 Boulevard Raspail. In 1957 and 1958, the Kamers embarked on a long journey through West Africa, Guinea and Mali where they explored the Dogon region before arriving in Côte d’Ivoire. They opened a second gallery in 1960 at 965 Madison Avenue, New York. They notably advised American collector Paul Tishman, whom they introduced to the collection at the Musée de l’Homme in 1966. The couple continued their acquisitions in the field in Africa, Oceania and Mexico77.
In 1965, she set out alone on a journey that would take her to the Dogon region for the second time, then to Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Burkina Faso. In 1967, she divorced Henri Kamer, who kept the New York gallery, and returned to Paris where she opened her gallery on Quai Malaquais with the architect Philippe Leloup who she married ten years later. The gallery, named Galerie Leloup in 1979, closed in 2004. They also opened a gallery in New York between 1986 and 1995 at 1044 then 1080 Madison Avenue.
Scientific advisor for the exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984, she contributed to the discussion that would lead to the creation of the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in 1998. In her role as an expert, she sat on the establishment’s Acquisitions Committee from 1998 to 2018.
Her leading publication on Dogon statuary art in 1994 proposes a classification of the major sculpture workshops. In 2011 she was curator of the Dogon exhibition at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac.
Selective biography and cartography
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