Bamana maternity figure (Gwandusu)

In traditional African societies, a childless marriage is a grave problem that has serious repercussions on the relationships between wife, husband, and
in-laws and on the village as a whole. Further, childlessness seems to be the wife's problem to resolve. According to Kate Ezra (1986), women with
fertility and child-bearing problems in Bamana society affiliate with Gwan, an association that is especially concerned with such problems. Women who
avail themselves of its ministrations and who succeed in bearing children make extra sacrifices to Gwan, dedicate their children to it, and name them
after the sculptures associated with the association.

Gwan sculptures occur in groups and are normally enshrined. An ensemble includes a mother-and-child figure like this one, the father, and several
other male and female figures. They are considered to be extremely beautiful, that is, "things that can be looked at without limit" (ibid., 2.2.), because
they achieve the Bamana standard for sculpture: they illustrate ideals of physical beauty and ideals of character and action. The figures are brought out
of the shrine to appear in annual public ceremonies. At such times, the figures are washed and oiled and then dressed in loincloths, head ties, and
beads, all of which are contributed by the women of the village.

Sculptures depicting a seated female figure clasping an infant to her torso are called Gwandusu. The name implies such ideal attributes as
"extraordinary strength, ardent courage, intense passion and conviction as well as the ability to accomplish great deeds" (ibid., 30).
This figure has not been scientifically dated. However, a seated female figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is stylistically and iconographically
similar dates at least from the seventeenth century (ibid., 2,8, 44).
Bamana peoples, Mali, 17th-19th century
Wood H. 46 1/2 in. (118.1 cm)
Collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler
From the book:
African Art in the Cycle of Life
Figure: Seated Mother and Child, 15th–20th century
Mali; Bamana; Bougouni or Dioila region
Wood; H. 48 5/8 in. (123.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.121)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Bamana notions of ideal beauty and character are evoked in this figure of a mother and child. The figure is part of a corpus of
large, relatively naturalistic sculptures whose rounded volumes and variety of gestures depart from the angular forms and stiff
postures characteristic of many other types of Bamana sculpture. These figures are displayed at the annual ceremonies of "Jo", an
association of initiated Bamana men and women, and at the rituals of "Gwan", a related society whose purpose is to help women
conceive and bear children. Groups of sculptures which were collectively owned by individual communities to be publicly exhibited
on such occasions, included representations of a mother and child, a male companion, and related attendant figures.
This figure depicts a woman of extraordinary abilities, as shown by the amulet-laden hat she wears and the knife strapped to her
left arm, both of which are conventionally associated with the powers of male hunters. An even more vital message conveyed by
the sculpture is the importance of motherhood in maintaining social cohesion and continuity within Bamana society, and elders'
roles in passing on their skills, powers, and values to future generations.
Bamana figures on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY