Ndoma portraits masks are the last to appear in performances, at dusk. They are commissioned from a sculptor to pay tribute to a member of the village and honour their outstanding qualities. When performing, the wearer of the ndoma mask is usually accompanied by the person who they are celebrating (or a substitute of them). The plant-fibre beard with its three plaits, the long, thin nose bridge and the protruding mouth all indicate an elderly man.
René Rasmussen (1912-1979), Paris
Former French collection
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Study Loiseau, Schmidt and Digard, Arts premiers. Collection Marianne Nahon, Collection Madame B., Collection du Docteur I. Schenkein et à divers amateurs, 23 June 1997, no. 59
Former Alain-Dominique Reymond collection, Paris Sotheby’s, Paris, 8 June 2007, batch no. 107
Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.9), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
The masks, as seen by the inexperienced Western eye, should not be seen as simply sculpted productions covering the face of a dancer but as a whole, in which costume, accessories, dances, songs and music are inextricably linked1. Because “hence, even before it is a shape, the mask is a sign”2.
As one of the most iconic sculpted productions of Baule art, this ndoma mask or portrait mask was designed to honour a high-ranking figure, whether living or dead. It celebrates their beauty, valour, wisdom or exemplary character, admired by the entire community. Bearing the name of their human double (ndoma means ‘copy’, ‘replica’, ‘equivalence’ or ‘double’)3, whose physical qualities and moral values are exalted and transfigured, the ndoma masks brings to a close ceremonies and dances known as gbagba, mblo ou ngblo, adjusu, or ajemble among different Baule sub-groups.
The Baule (or Baoulé) people occupy a vast region formed of savanna woodlands in the centre of Côte d’Ivoire. Rich in gold deposits - hence the fundamental importance of gold for this emblematic people - this region was a particularly important place of convergence for many peoples since prehistoric times.
According to the origin myth, the Baule people, then called the Asabu people, come from the Ashanti region of current Ghana, from where they migrated under the leadership of their queen Abla Pokou, following dynastic strife in the mid-18th century.4 Warned by a seer, queen Abla Pokou was forced to sacrifice her only child to the god of the river to cross the Komoé River and save her people. By throwing her son into the waters barring their path, she is said to have cried ‘Ba ouli’, meaning ‘the child is dead’. As remembrance of the sacrifice that would ensure their future prosperity, this expression passed down in myths, is the source of the ethnonym Baule.
Nevertheless, it seems that the Baule people were probably already present in their current area of settlement from the late 16th century. Providing justification for the matrilineal descent of Baule society, the founding myths, coinciding with the official history widely relayed in the 1940s by major figures such as Ivorian author Bernard Dadié, are not specific to the Baule alone but also apply to other groups in southeastern Côte d'Ivoire5. According to Timothy F. Garrard, “this ancestral myth of a prestige minority group has come to be regarded as the history of the whole people, […] previous events have become superfluous. All memory of them has therefore been suppressed, and even the existence and identity of the previous population have been placed in doubt.”6
As such, the Akan origins of the Baule have superseded the original foundations. For Alain-Michel Boyer, “the myth of origin was part of an assimilatory ideology aiming to reject any local differences and reinforce the idea of belonging to a homogeneous [...].”7 Though the Akan origins are undeniable, several specialists also suggest a network of multiple influences from native peoples and their neighbours (Senufo, Guro, Yaouré, Wan, Mono)8, expressed in material form in cult, initiatory and divinatory practices, as well as sculpture, of course. Moreover, many traits that are characteristic of Baule worship and material culture do not exist in Akan culture, for example the system of initiation in sacred groves, the use of masks, statuettes of so-called mystic spouses or spouses from the afterlife, mouse oracles, sculpted doors, and so on.9 So, for Alain-Michel Boyer, “the Baule people’s ingenuity was in assimilating diversity, and this resides in neither a supposed Ghanaian origin nor in just taking up native elements, but in the outstanding artistic synthesis that the Baule people achieved over the centuries […]”10
Baule masks: three main groups
Several legends tell of the appearance of masks among the Baule, the only people of Akan origin in Côte d’Ivoire to use them11. Foreign to the Akan region, these masked traditions were borrowed from neighbouring peoples. Among the Baule people, they are primarily intended to honour invisible secondary gods, a formidable “being-force”12 who regulate the daily lives of men: the amwin.13
These supernatural beings are very powerful and characterised by their ambivalent nature: “these secondary deities are pure spirits of a double nature. Both benevolent and formidable, they are in constant contact with what threatens the earth. These potentially dangerous sources of disorder can either destroy or defend, heal or exterminate, but when they are satisfied regularly with the appropriate services, they become benevolent, and their primary role becomes the protection of man from evil deeds and presences [...] If, however, the amwin do not receive the homage that is their due, they become weak and feeble, and finally take their revenge on man, often by simply ceasing to protect him at the most critical moment in his life.”14
Masked traditions play an essential role in homages paid to the amwin, which are described as especially receptive to music and masquerade. As Alain-Michel Boyer underlines, “that is why the the dance that permits ,the mask to receive the influx and influence of the amwin and causes the force to circulate is itself considered an essential offering, "If one does not dance, then the amwin is trapped." […] Naturally, the Baule only know the mask as it is when dramatized by the ritual, in a space where immobility meets movement and beauty balances fear in the living unity of a shared consciousness.”15
There are three main categories16 of masks used by the Baule people and all of them are worn by men: masks of the goli cult, bonu amuin incantation masks and entertainment masks, the cults for which are called gbagba, mblo ou ngblo, adjusu or ajemble17 depending on the Baule sub-group and region.
Masks from the goli18 cult, which are thought to have come from the Wan people19, are usually made up of four pairs of masks (a male and a female). They are considered a family (osu)20 and appear in a precise order: the goli-glin (the father), the kpwan (the spouse), the kplekple (the son) and the kpwan kplé (the daughter). Masks forming part of the whole goli cult are among the most popular in the region. They are brought out at daytime in festive ceremonies and can be seen by all. They can also be brought out at night for funerals of men, then taking on a sacred purpose and becoming far less prominent, like incantation masks.
Bonu amuin incantation masks are sacred masks reserved exclusively for men. They are used at night and cannot be seen under any circumstances by children or women, even Western women. Evoking the power of the amuin, these helmet-masks have varied formal structures but are mainly zoomorphic and hybrid (often associating the buffalo and the antelope) They play an especially important prophylactic, religious and judicial role. In this way, they help regulate – and even help purify – the social order (staving off evil spirits, epidemics, threats of war, adultery and other social transgressions). Libations of palm oil or alcohol, and sacrifices (captive prisoners who used21 to be immolated have since been replaced by animal sacrifices) were performed on these masks before they were taken out.
Lastly, entertainment masks, described as the women’s22 favourite amuin, are brought out at daytime and can be seen by everyone. Although they fulfil no religious or sacred purpose, they can also be brought out for women’s funerals. Mainly facial, they sometimes include a superstructure featuring scenes or particular characters. These festive masks with a “diversity of names only rivalled in breadth by the range of forms of the masks, despite the unchanging iconographic features”23 display a variety of animals, groups of neighbouring peoples and even Europeans, whose characteristics, socio-cultural habits and language they parody. Usually seven masks24 are brought out: the zoomorphic masks first, then the anthropomorphic masks and, lastly, the portrait masks.
Open to all, these festive masquerades were described in detail by Alain-Michel Boyer: “First, a dancer appears, not wearing a mask. [...] his role is to chant the changes in the dancers he accompanies. […] The wooden masks then come into play, each incorporated into a playlet where it is the protagonist, with a progression: from zoomorphic representations to anthropomorphic creations. [...] The masks depicting domestic animals come forth first: a nanny goat, a billy goat, then wild animals: an antelope, a buffalo, a baboon. The dancer then mimes the walk of the animal, or, with his acolytes, alludes to hunting scenes. [...] Next, different social types appear […] the captive, kanga, […] the Mossi mask […] which is supposed to represent a member of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso – accompanied with songs that imitate this people’s language, while the acolytes, surrounding the wearer, enjoy mimicking Muslims, prostrating themselves on hides laid out on the floor, imitating their approach ... The dancer wearing the blofwé (white man) mask holds a little flag of the Ivory Coast as the representation of a tissue, which he uses to wipe his face like Europeans suffering from the heat. And lastly, to crown everything, the portrait masks arrive […].”25
Ndoma portrait masks
Ndoma portrait masks are the last to appear in performances, at dusk26. Commissioned from a sculptor by one or several admirers27, they are made to pay tribute to a member of the village and honour their outstanding qualities (the great beauty and elegance of a woman, the experience and wisdom of an elder, the dexterity of a hunter). "When they perform, the wearer of the ndoma mask is usually accompanied by the person who they are celebrating (or a substitute of them), and sometimes wears clothing belonging to them. The dancer, “dressed in his/her best attire, sprinkling him with perfume, covering the ground as he dances on with pieces of fabric, beating away flies which are irritating him and generally behaving towards his double as if he were his child.”28
An ideal image
Beyond mere imitation seeking to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the morphological traits that characterise an individual – a notion that Western art long held so dear – the representation tends to give material form to an ideal image, which here becomes exemplary. While featuring easily identifiable constants in form, mainly the sublimation of certain standards of beauty that we also find in Baule statuary, “the individuality of the representation does not bring about a representation of the individual” and the design of this type of mask creation, unique in its kind, “responds less to a desire for individuation as an effort in transfiguration”.29
As Alain-Michel Boyer explains, “the artist is especially keen to give perceptible form – through unity of style, balance of parts and finesse of contours – to harmony with a shared faith. In fact, the masks are human emblems, and this pseudo-realism does not escape idealisation. Though likely to magnify the image of life, the artist takes little interest in the particularities of the individual human being. What prevails is a poetic expression of the face, a source of inflexions in which refinement sublimates resemblance. Herein lies the paradox of imitation as the supposed purpose of art.”30
Enhanced by a lacquered patina bearing witness to its age, this mask with its plant-fibre plaited beard doubtless paid tribute to an elderly man who was important in the community. It is an outstanding example of the idealised aesthetics among the Baule people, with a stylistic influence from the Yaouré people31. It sublimates recurring aesthetic standards, which can be seen in the care given to the elaborate, meticulously plaited coiffure, the delicate profile, the high forehead, the big eyes with lowered eyelids, here showing traces of red pigments, the slender, slightly protruding mouth, and the eyebrow arches that meet and blend to form the long, thin nose bridge in the face’s beautiful oval and introspective expression.
History of the work and its background
The collector Alain-Dominique Reymond acquired this Baule mask in the 1990s. It comes from a former French collection: the collection of ‘Madame B’ according to the auction catalogue, who herself bought the mask from the renowned art dealer and collector René Rasmussen. In 2007, it joined the collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, then expanded that of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in 2017.
The former bookseller and publisher René Rasmussen (1912-1979), a close friend of Tristan Tzara and André Breton, principally collected modern art (Yves Klein, Roberto Matta, Hans Bellmer, André Lanskoy, Karel Appel and Georges Mathieu) and African art. In 1959, he opened his gallery of African art A.A.A at 1 rue de l’Abbaye in Paris with his wife and his friend Robert Duperrier. Before the African countries’ independence his principal suppliers of objects were colonials, as well as researchers such as François di Dio. After 1960 they were replaced by African antiques dealers and French people returning from Africa.
Selected bibliography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
BARBIER Jean-Paul (dir.), Art of Côte d’Ivoire from the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, 1993, vol. I et II.
BARBIER Jean-Paul (dir.), Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie : fleurons du musée Barbier-Mueller, Paris ; Geneva ; Barcelona, Hazan ; Musée Barbier-Mueller, 2007.
BOYER Alain-Michel, « L’art baoulé » in BARBIER Jean-Paul, Art of Côte d’Ivoire from the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, 1993, vol.1 , pp. 302-367.
BOYER Alain-Michel, Baule, Milan, 5 Continents, 2008.
BOYER Alain-Michel, Le corps africain, Paris, Hazan, 2007.
BOYER Alain-Michel, « Un art du portrait ? » in Les Arts d’Afrique, Paris, Hazan, 2006, pp. 156-160.
BOYER Alain-Michel, BUTOR Michel, MORIN Floriane, L’Homme et ses masques, Paris, Hazan, 2005.
FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU Christiane, Mascarades et carnavals, Paris, Editions Dapper, 2011.
FISCHER Eberhard et HOMBERGER Lorenz, Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire, Paris, musée du quai Branly ; Skira, 2015.
GARRARD Timothy, « Les Baoulé : une introduction » in BARBIER Jean-Paul (dir.), Art of Côte d’Ivoire from the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, 1993, vol. I, pp. 290-301.
FISCHER Eberhard et MAYER-HIMMELHEBER Clara, Die Kultur der Baule : Fotodokumentation an der Elfenbeinküste 1933+34/35 von Hans Himmelheber mit Martin Lippman, Zürich, Museum Rietberg, 1997.
JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 151-153.
LEHUARD Raoul, « La collection Rasmussen vendue par Me Libert » in Arts d’Afrique Noire, Hiver 1979, n°32, pp. 21-25.
LOUCOU Jean-Noël, Entre l’histoire et la légende : l’Exode des Baoulé au XVIIIe siècle, Afrique-Histoire, Dakar 5, pp. 43-50.
LOUCOU Jean-Noël, La Reine Poku, fondatrice du royaume baoulé, Paris ; Dakar ; Abidjan, ABC ; NEA, 1978.
VALLUET, Christine, Regards visionnaires. Milan : 5 Continents, 2018.
VOGEL M. Susan, L’art baoulé du visible et de l’invisible, Paris, Adam Biro, 1997.
VOGEL M. Susan, « Beauty in the Eyes of the Baule; Aesthetics and Cultural Values », Philadelphia, Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Working Papers in the Traditional Art #6, 1980.
VOGEL M. Susan, « Baule scarification : The Mark of Civilisation » in RUBIN Arnold, Marks of Cililization : artistic transformations of the human body, Los Angeles, Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1988, pp. 97-105.
VOGEL M. Susan, Baoulé : collection de Marceau Rivière. Paris, Galerie Ratton-Hourdé, 2002.
Audiovisual - documentary film sources
HIMMELHEBER Hans, Baule (Westafrika, Elfenbeinküste)"gbagba" Maskentanz in Asouakro. 1. Einmarsch, Tanz des Gbagba, Schafsmaske, Coll. Geisteswissenschaften Humanities; Encyclopedia cinematographica, Göttingen, IWF Wissen und Medien gGmbH éd., 1969 (Cote : DVD-002582).
HIMMELHEBER Hans, Baule (Westafrika, Elfenbeinküste)"gbagba" Maskentanz in Asouakro. 2. Rote, Schwarze und weiße Maske, Ameisenmaske, Kindermasken, Coll. Geisteswissenschaften Humanities; Encyclopedia cinematographica, Göttingen, IWF Wissen und Medien gGmbH éd., 1969 (Cote : DVD- 002583).
HIMMELHEBER Hans, Baule (Westafrika, Elfenbeinküste) : Akrobatentanz "adjemle" in Kouadjikro, Coll. Geisteswissenschaften Humanities; Encyclopedia cinematographica, Göttingen, IWF Wissen und Medien gGmbH éd., 1969 (Cote : DVD-002580).
Paris, Drouot, Tableaux et sculptures modernes, livres et manuscrits, gres du Japon, meubles, arts primitifs : succession René Rasmussen, 1ère public auction, Friday 14 December 1979.
Galerie Piltzer, Paris, Digard, Arts premiers. Collection Marianne Nahon, Collection Madame B., Collection du Docteur I. Schenkein et à divers amateurs, 23 June 1997, no. 59.
Sotheby’s Paris, 8 June 2007.