Shrine Figures of the Bamana

June 22 – October 5, 1996
at Peter Blum SoHo

Peter Blum is pleased to announce an exhibition entitled "Boliw: Shrine Figures of the Bamana, Mali" which will present an important group of these mysterious sculptures for the first time in the United States.  This show complements the extensive exhibition "Africa: The Art of a Continent" at the Guggenheim Museum.

Museum visitors have been intrigued by glimpses of individual Boliw in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and in such exhibitions as "African Masterpieces from the Musée de l'Homme" at the former Center for African Art, New York in 1984, and the "Secrecy" show at the Museum for African Art, New York in 1993.  However, the present exhibition marks the first time in the United States that viewers have the opportunity to look at a group of Boliw.

Boliw are shrine figures of the Bamana people of Mali and as such are central figures of secret societies.  A Boli is not carved, but rather built up and molded from such materials as wood, earth, clay, bones, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, honey, beer, bark, and other substances.  The mass is shaped into a heavy, rounded form which may sometimes suggest an animal or a human but may also remain unidentifiable.  

The indefinite forms of the Boliw imply a secret that only the initiate can penetrate.  Hidden from the uninitiated, the Boliw were carefully kept in shrines or in the house of the priest.  Through ritual performances their power was enhanced and renewed by the application of sacrificial animal blood, and their dark, encrusted surfaces evoked fear or reverence.

The extraordinary group in this exhibition marks a unique opportunity to study objects whose sublime mastery rivals the radical insights into sculptural form that we have come to associate with the most challenging modern work.  As Robert Goldwater has written, "But in a deeper sense too [the Boliw] are works of art, since they issue from an imagination that does more than imitate appearance and so functions for the observer as an imaginative focus, mysterious yet real.1

The pressures of colonialism and the spread of Islam displaced pantheism and the attendant secret societies in Mali. Consequently, most of the shrines with the Boliw were either destroyed or abandoned, and many of their objects dispersed. Even as they were stripped of their ritual significance, the Boliw exerted an intense fascination on the Europeans who came into contact with them. Perhaps most notably, Michel Leiris enthusiastically described Boliw in L'Afrique Fantôme (1934).

Undoubtedly, the searching scholarship devoted exclusively to the complexities of the Boliw is Sarah Brett-Smith's essay "The Poisonous Child," published in Res magazine in 1985. Robert Goldwater also devoted much attention to the Boliw in Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan, an exhibition catalogue for the Museum of Primitive Art, New York.  Older but considerably shorter references to Boliw are found in publications by Abbé Henry (1910), Monteil (1924) and Tauxier (1927).  Texts by Dieterien (1951), Zahan (1974), McNaughton (1979) and Celenko (1983) also make references to the Boliw and to secret societies in particular.

Boliw:  Shrine Figures of the Bamana, Mali promises to be an inspiration for all parties interested in the fertile interplay between tribal art and contemporary art.  We are still far from understanding these enigmatic figures, but they nevertheless strongly speak to us.

For further information and photographs, please contact Peter Blum or the consultant for this special project, Alfred Kren. The gallery is located at 99 Wooster Street at Spring Street.  Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday 11 am to 6 pm and Monday by appointment.

1. Robert Goldwater, Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan, New York, 1960, page 10.

Please note:  The single object is called "Boli" whereas the plural reads "Boliw."Also, because of the phonetically derived spelling of African tribes, please note that Bamana and Bambara are identical.