October 12, 2014 Leave a comment
On 10/09/14 a small African Tribal art auction featuring property from the Rona family collection took place in Boonton NJ. The prices of the African Art sold varied from approximately $100 – $7,000 and included pieces “purchased in the 1970’s from respected galleries such as Segy, Klejman, and Tribal Arts; including published pieces from Ladislas Segy’s Masks of Black Africa”, (MilleaBros catalog, 2014). This effectively provided buyers with more than the usual “provenance halo”, typically associated with pieces purchased at major auction houses.
While one may take any number of positives from the event (beauty, breath, quality, depth, provenance) the pieces from the Baga tribes (Bansonyi, Tonkongba, Nimba, A Tshol) brought a much greater appreciation for what I had previously considered as a less attractive, and less abstract masking tradition.
The Baga people, approx. 60,000 in total, occupy the northern coast of Guinea and the southern coast of Guinea-Bissau. Bansonyi is the man’s secret society that unites autonomous villages of the Baga people. Its emblem is a polychrome headpiece, called Bansonyi that is carved in the form of a python standing upright. It embodies the snake-spirit a-Mantsho-na-Tshol (“master of medicine”). Among most Baga subgroups, only adolescent males learn the secrets of the snake-spirit during the initiation, which marks the passage to adult status.
Bansonyi lives in the sacred forest and emerges when it is time to begin the boys’ coming-of-age rites. Bansonyi is believed to be the strongest adversary of sorcery and destructive forces that could endanger the well-being of the village. It is especially protective of the boys during their initiation into adult society. Bansonyi also appear at the funeral celebrations of the most important members of the community.
E1 Rona Family Collections Auction, (Price realized $2,250)
The character represented in this mask, Banda (also called Kumbaruba by some Baga groups), is a complex composite of human and animal forms. The long horizontal headdress is composed of the face of a human being and the jaw of a crocodile, whose angular teeth are visible along the side of the mask. The human face is characterized by Baga scarification marks as well as a woman’s elaborately braided coiffure. The top of the headdress features the horns of an antelope, the body of a serpent, and the tail of a chameleon. Banda headdresses are quite large; this example measures just over four feet in length. Yet despite their unwieldy size, the mask is manipulated with astonishing dexterity and dynamism during performances.
Today, the Banda headdress is danced only for entertainment, although historical documentation suggests that it originally carried an extremely sacred significance. It seems that Banda represented a high and powerful spiritual being that would appear only to privileged society elders. During that period, Banda was used in rituals designed to protect against dangers such as animal attacks or even human malevolence, especially around the time of important male initiation rites. In contemporary Baga society, the Banda performer, invariably a young man, carries the wooden headdress on top of his head. Attached to the underside of the headdress is a large raffia cape that covers the dancer’s face and extends to his knees. The performance takes place in a circular arena formed by the crowd and is accompanied by drummers playing on giant wooden slit gongs. The choreography of the dance invokes the movements of various animals, including soaring birds, foot-stamping bulls, and undulating serpents. In the greatest spectacle of the performance, the dancer goes into a dizzying spin holding the headdress aloft, then twirling it in a series of figure eights and plunging it to the ground, finally returning the headdress to his head, all without missing a beat.
The most important of the Baga art forms is the great mask, D’mba or Nimba.
It represents the mother of fertility, protector of pregnant women, and presides over all agricultural ceremonies. The dancer, wearing a full raffia costume, carries the mask on his shoulders, looking out through holes between the breasts. In use, such masks rise more than eight feet above the ground; they often weigh more than eighty pounds. Most show a standardized pattern of facial scarification.
” Nimba is the joy of living; it is the promise of abundant harvest”
The Baga Nimba, or D’mba, represents the abstraction of an ideal of the female role in society. The Nimba is essentailly viewed as the vision of woman at her zenith of power, beauty, and affective presence; rather than a goddess or spirit. The typical Nimba form illustrates a woman that has been fertile, given birth to several children, and nurtured them to adulthood.
TONKONGBA , 
The Tonkongba headdress can be seen as a three-part form, including a helmet in the center, a long snout protruding from the front, and, a pair of flat horns usually connected at their tips. It is not known much about the use of these headdresses. Knowledge concerning the Tonkongba’s function is complicated by a number of factors, including the extreme secrecy enveloping the sculpture and the probability that it was used in different ways by different groups. No doubt, it served both as a shrine figure and as a dance headdress. According to some sources, the Tonkongba appeared on any special occasion when a sacrifice was involved, for example, at a funeral. It danced at sunrise. When Tonkongba came out, the people would hang tobacco leaves and fowl on its costume as tribute. 
These masks were formerly attributed to the Landuman, but are now known to come from the northern Baga. This is an important cult mask, representing a stylized Atlantic dolphin. The “melon” and beak can be plainly made out, (some have a definitive dorsal fin), flippers and tail. This marine mammal was regarded as sacred by the Baga. According to Bacquart, “the mask …is usually kept in front of a clan’s shrine. It is sometimes worn by dancers during ceremonies involving sacrifices — for instance, funerals. Tonkongba is alleged to be omniscient, thus has the power to know and promulgate both good and bad news”. 
Oral history suggests that the A-tshol (Elëk, ma-Tshol) shrine figures combining bird and human attributes date back to the ancient origins of the Baga and Nalu peoples. Such figures were the most revered objects on shrines dedicated to the protection of a clan. Their name, translated into the various languages of coastal Guinea where these figures were found, means medicine, and on shrines they stood alongside other protective medicines invested with supernatural power. On important occasions, such figures could also be danced on the head of a male clan member.
E6 Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/109828