BOLI figure
This object, called a boli (pl. boliw), once played a central role in the ritual life of a Bamana village. Such power objects are
owned by male initiation associations whose members progress through induction processes that span decades. Over time,
they attain esoteric knowledge that leads to a greater understanding of the natural and spiritual worlds. Opaque and mysterious
to the uninitiated eye, boliw are safely handled only by those association members equipped with the most rarified skills and

The primary function of a boli is to accumulate and control the naturally occurring life force called nyama for the spiritual benefit
of the community. Used as altars or carried during dance performances, they are complex creations created from esoteric
recipes, or daliluw. Animal bones, vegetable matter, honey, and metal are packed around an interior armature of bamboo
wrapped in white cotton cloth. They are covered with layers of mud and clay, and their surfaces accumulate sacrificial materials
over time, including chicken and goat blood, chewed kola nuts, alcohol, and millet porridge. Each added layer of material lends
the structure greater spiritual power.

Boliw and their numerous ingredients have been interpreted in a number of different ways. It has been suggested, for instance,
that the disparate elements of which boliw are composed symbolize the various parts of the universe, so that the whole can be
read as a model of Bamana cosmological belief. It has also been noted that the boliw's sacrificial coatings are strikingly similar to
the undigested contents of human stomachs, while the interiors of the boliw are made of materials generally associated with the
body's exterior. For this reason, they have sometimes been interpreted as portrayals of animals and people turned inside out.
While this example takes a vaguely bovine form, others are more representative of recognizable subjects, including human
Sources: A History of Art in Africa and Africa and Africa - The Art of A Continent
Examples from various sources for
Zoomorphic shrine object, Bamana; Mali
Wood, sacrificial materials, clay; L. 21"

Like the mask form, this object can serve as an altarpiece and is kept in a secluded sanctuary. Boli sculpture depicts an
animal such as a hippopotamus or cow but in ritual use builds into a dark accumulation of mud and sacrificial materials in
which the form becomes ambiguous. Used for the good of the association and community in dispelling evil, it is regarded
with fear and loathing by non-initiates in Bamana society. The simple form of this example abstracts the nature of "animal"
almost to its limits, depicting the quintessential idea within the image.

From the website for the book -
Remnants of Ritual - Selections from the Gelbard Collection of African art
Bovine Figure (Boli), 19th–20th century
Mali; Bamana
Wood, sacrificial materials (patina); L. 20 1/2 in. (52.07 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of
Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.175)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Africa, Republic of Mali, Bamana peoples
Boli (Komo Society Altar)
20th century
Wood, bark, clay, blood conglomerate
Height: 26 in. (66 cm)
Sculpture; Ritual/ceremonial object
Gift of the Gerard Junior Foundation
A fine Bamana Boli figure
of abstract zoomorphic quadruped form, the thick legs supporting a massive body and extended head with a hump
at the neck; heavily encrusted varied patina.
length 25in. (63.5cm.) by height 19in. (48.3cm.)

Cf. Brett-Smith (1994: figure 1) for a related example and discussion. A Boli is an assemblage of diverse materials
in animal, human or unidentifiable form. It is placed on the altar of a men's power association sanctuary.  A Boli is
viewed as an embodiment of spiritual forces and as such provides a reservoir of power that can be harnessed at
appropriate times. There is no field information about how these unusual objects are constructed and very little
solid evidence about their composition. X-rays of  numerous Boli figures, including that in the collection of  the
Indianapolis  Museum of Art, for instance, and the lot offered here reveal an interior infrastructure of nails and
possibly wood surmounted by an amorphous bundle.
Estimate $12,000-18,000
SOLD $26,625.00
Sotheby's May 1999
Lot 174 - A Bamana Boli figure
in the form of an amorphous bull with tapering legs beneath an immense rounded body with
prominent hump over the shoulders and composed of a dense and varied mud pack overlaying a
wooden infrastructure. length 19.5in. (49.5cm.)

Cf. Brett-Smith, The Making of Bamana Scupture, 1994:24 figure 1. These sculptures were used as
portable altars, they serve a practical purpose as does most sculpture within the Bamana
community. According to Brett-Smith they are "used by high ranking male members of the feared
Komo association to focus power from the spirit world. The unique heavily encrusted surface on
these objects is the result of a compilation of a variety of sacrificial elements such as wood, bark,
tree roots, cotton, animal hair, blood and other substances applied as an offering over to the spirits.
Estimate - $8,000-12,000
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : May 12, 2005


boli, the quadraped with splayed legs supporting a rounded body with protruding snout and
conical hump, a hollow cylinder for the insertion of magic at the reverse; varied and encrusted
greyish surface with evidence of organic materials.

Cf. Colleyn (2001: 193 and 242, figures 173 and 173) for related power figures and
discussion. The offered lot would have been used as a portable altar. The heavily encrusted
surface results from the layering of sacrificial elements such as wood, bark, tree roots, cotton,
hair, blood and other substances. Once anointed it emanates nyama, or energy and power.

length 23in. 58.5cm

$ 12,000 - $ 18,000
Sotheby's - New York
African & Oceanic Art
Auction Date : Nov 14, 2003


the quadraped of abstract zoomorphic form, the large massive body and rounded snout
beneath a conical hump; varied and encrusted grayish surface with evidence of organic

height 17 3/4 in. 45cm

Estimate:$ 15,000 - $ 25,000  
Price Realized:$ 0    


Cf. Colleyn, ed. (2001: 193, figures 172 and 194, figure 175) for related figures and discussion.
Sotheby's - New York
African and Oceanic Art
Auction Date : Nov 16, 2001

Lot 17 :  A fine Bamana Boli figure

A fine Bamana Boli figure of abstract zoomorphic form, with four short
asymmetrical legs, and supporting an elongated massive body beneath a
conical rounded hump at the front and a protruding rounded snout; fine and
varied encrusted deep brown patina. length 25 1/2 in. (64.8cm.) Cf. Brett-Smith
(1994:24, figure 1) for a related example and discussion. These amorphous
zoomoprphic sculptures were used by the Bamana as portable altars. The
unusual heavily encrusted surface on boliresults from the layers of a variety of
sacrificial elements such as wood, bark, tree roots, cotton, animal hair, blood
and other substances applied as an offering to the spirits.

length 25 1/2 in. (64.8

Estimate:$ 12,000 - $ 18,000
Price Realized:$ 24,900
Boli figures can also take the abstract
human form, as well as other abstract
forms that are different than the
examples I have shown on this page.

The figure above is from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY