Freud, the Baule, Ashante, and Bambara.

Within the past year I have shared apartment space with several African Tribal art objects, which while beautiful to look at also carried a story or had significant meaning in some form related to family unity or maternity. It really makes a difference just relating to the concepts behind the art. It doesn’t happen overnight, but over time exposure to non-western philosophy offers a different interpretation of our day to day meanderings.

In Freud’s model of the psyche, the Id (instinctive unconscious), the Ego (organized, conscious), and the Superego (moralizing, not entirely unconscious) form an interactive framework which work together in the mind.

“One of the fundamental functions of the Ego is Reality Testing – reaching into the real world to see if what is believed to be the case actually proves out – but this does not bear full fruit until the Ego has become Autonomous… substantially set free from inner conflicts between the Id and Superego.”[1]

To attain optimum creativity on an individual basis the Ego therefore has to be free from the restrictions, and guidelines (parental, religious, societal) imposed by the Superego. As the following will show the Baule, Ashante, and Bambara tribes/cultures use ‘role playing’ to embrace the role of the Superego and to subvert the role of the Ego. A strong Ego (contrary to common belief), is a good thing,

“Ego strength is the power, determination and ability to engage reality for whatever we find it to be – to accept what is as existing and to then use our cognitive-behavioral, emotional and relational skills to deal with such. Ego strength also refers to the inner personal strength by which we tolerate stress and frustration and to deal with reality without falling back to infantile defense mechanisms.”[2]

It can be argued however that in a close knit society where the role of the woman is less expansive that it is today, and the family unit more important, role-playing through reinforcement of an integrated value system incorporating a belief system based on spiritual interaction is a realistic option. The interpretation is that the tribal focus is not “to be the best that one could be” but rather from a holistic perspective “to be the best component of a community” that respects more fundamental concepts, such as child bearing, family unity, and trust. From this viewpoint it would seem that there is a place for the tempering effect of the Superego in the right social environment.

Baule Spirit Statue (Blolo Bla)

In the Baule culture it is believed that prior to being born, each person has a spouse in the spirit world. The male spirit husband is called ‘blolo bian’ and the female spirit wife is called ‘blolo bla’. Both figures form a pair and are used in the family household together. It is held that ofttimes when things go wrong the responsibility lies with the spirit spouses, which become angry or jealous and disturb the lives of their living partners. On these occasions a diviner recommends that an altar be established where the spirit may receive offerings and be appeased[3].

“The carved figure of the ‘spirit spouse’ should be beautiful in order to please the spirit and attract it to the shrine. The erect bearing of the figures indicates a morally upright person; the open eyes and high forehead suggest intelligence and lucidity. The hands held obediently at the sides and the modest stance of the feet give the figure a respectful attitude that shows good character. Physical perfection is shown in the healthy body, the strong neck able to bear heavy loads on the head, and the muscular calves of the hard worker. The pointed breasts and rounded buttocks of the female signify maturity and sexual attractiveness, and thus the promise of children. “

Ashante Fertility Doll (Akua’ba)

The legend of the origination of the Akua’ba doll comes from the story of a woman named “Akua” who could not get pregnant and went to a local diviner or priest and commissioned the carving of a small wooden doll. She carried and cared for the doll as if it were her own child, feeding it, bathing it and so on. Soon the people in
the village started calling it “Akua” “ba” – meaning “Akua’s child”, since “ba” meant child. She soon became pregnant and her daughter grew up with the doll.

Ashante Akua'ba doll

The legend and tradition still live on today… [4]

Bambara Maternity Figures

Bambara Maternity Statues


Bambara sculptures are primarily used during the annual ceremonies of the Guan society. During these ceremonies, a group of up to seven figures, measuring from 80 to 130 cm in height, are removed from their sanctuaries by the elder members of the society. The sculptures are washed, re-oiled and sacrifices are offered to them at their shrines. These figures – some of which date from between the 14th and 16th centuries – usually display a typical crested coiffure, often adorned with a talisman.

The  seated or standing maternity figure called Guandousou –is known in the West as the ‘Bambara Queen’ [5]

By undermining these social constructs society effectively feeds into the argument of “Ego strength”. In an environment where medical advances and state of the art technology are common, one may take the scientific route as the first option. In the tribal arena it is entirely possible that the speed of cultural degradation, thus far, outstrips the supply of technical infrastructure. The individual in such cases is left without the social network offered by the larger male or female ‘society’ and the fabric of the tribal society is rendered meaningless by the loss of ‘Superego’ based value systems, supported by tribal  rituals.


[1] http://www.trans4mind.com/mind-development/ego-autonomy.html

[2] http://www.trans4mind.com/mind-development/ego-autonomy.html

[3] http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/artsandmedia/artmuseum/africanart/Exhibition.html

[4] http://www.randafricanart.com/Asante_akuaba_doll.html

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_art

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One Response to Freud, the Baule, Ashante, and Bambara.

  1. lis says:

    great insight into the world of our rich africian history…..

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