Bambara Bamana, Large Merekun Puppet

  • Tribe: Bamana
  • Origin: Mali
  • Approx Age: Early 20th Century
  • Materials: Wood, metal plate, remains of cloth
  • Dimensions cm: 105 Tall x 25 wide
  • Ref. Number: 0238

This large Bamana Merekun Puppet has been vetted by a UK dealer as being authentic with signs of use and age.

A large and stunning old Bamana Merekun puppet in janiform from Mali. There are scrapes and scuffs, the metal adornments are rusty and it has still got remains of old red cloth under the metal adornments which is rare to find.

Sogo bo, the puppet masquerade drama of the Bamana, is an exploration of the moral universe. The Sogo bo performance takes place at night, and can carry on well into the early morning hours, consisting of more than twenty sets of dances. Called to the dance by the beat of the drums, the maskers, either individually or in small groups, dance in character. The large and powerful beasts lumber about slowly, majestically (the more powerful ones come out towards the end of the night), while the energy and spark of youth can be seen in the dance of the smaller animals. Each dance set lasts only five to ten minutes, and in between, the women’s chorus provide song (praise songs for the animals). The chorus, however, does not perform during the dance sets, the sets are without voice. It is the masks, the movement of the maskers, and the beat of the drums that tell the story.

The relationship between men and women and the problems of domestic relations in polygamous households are important concerns of many Sogo bo performances. Conflict among co-wives is a popular theme in many stories and two of the main characters are Barabara, the Favourite Wife, and the Galomuso, the Bad Wife. Like folktales and other theatrical forms, these masquerade performances throw cultural values and social relationships into high relief and open them up for public scrutiny.

The largest group of masquerade characters and the oldest performed in the theater are bush animals.

Reference from The Sogow by Mary Jo Arnoldi in Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. New York: Museum of African Art.

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Malian puppetry features maaniw, “little people” or puppets in human form. They range in size, from small hand-held rod puppets to almost 6-foot tall figures. Maaniw play an important role in initiation ceremonies and often appear at nighttime on the backs of kalaka (small stages in the form of a body). They often speak of the individual’s place in society and teach morals.

Though there are certain tenets that are retained in the storytelling, it is by no means a static tradition. Puppet plays that were once held only on specified days are now held on weekends, to accommodate the schedule of those who have left the village to make a living in bigger cities. Modern issues are dealt with, and the plays continue to reflect the lives and times of the Bamana.

The Bamana originated as a royal section of the Mandinka people. They are founders of the Mali Empire in the 13th Century. Both Manding and Bambara are part of the Mandé ethnic group, whose earliest known history can be traced back to sites near Tichitt (now subsumed by the Sahara in southern Mauritania), where urban centers began to emerge by as early as 2500 BC. By 250 BC, a Mandé subgroup, the Bozo, founded the city of Djenne. Between 300 AD and 1100 AD, the Soninke Mandé dominated the Western Mali, leading the Ghana Empire. When the Mandé Songhai Empire dissolved after 1600 AD, many Mandé-speaking groups along the upper Niger river basin turned inward. The Bamana appeared again in this milieu with the rise of a Bamana Empire in the 1740s, when the Mali Empire started to crumble around 1559.

While there is little consensus among modern historians and ethnologists as to the origins or meaning of the ethno-linguistic term, references to the name Bambara can be found from the early 18th century.[3] In addition to its general use as a reference to an ethno-linguistic group, Bambara was also used to identify captive Africans who originated in the interior of Africa perhaps from the upper Senegal-Niger region and transported to the Americas via ports on the Senegambian coast. As early as 1730 at the slave-trading post of Gorée, the term Bambara referred simply to slaves who were already in the service of the local elites or French.[4]

Growing from farming communities in Ouassoulou, between Sikasso and Ivory Coast, Bamana-age co-fraternities (called Tons) began to develop a state structure which became the Bambara Empire and later Mali Empire. In stark contrast to their Muslim neighbors, the Bamana state practised and formalised traditional polytheistic religion, though Muslim communities remained locally powerful, if excluded from the central state at Ségou.

The Bamana became the dominant cultural community in western Mali. The Bambara language, mutually intelligible with the Manding and Dyula languages, has become the principal inter-ethnic language in Mali and one of the official languages of the state alongside French.

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The Bamana people adapted many artistic traditions. Artworks were created both for religious use and to define cultural and religious difference. Bamana artistic traditions include pottery, sculpture, weaving, iron figures, and masks. While the tourist and art market is the main destination of modern Bamana artworks, most artistic traditions had been part of sacred vocations, created as a display of religious beliefs and used in ritual.

Bamana forms of art include the n’tomo mask and the Tyi Warra. The n’tomo mask was used by dancers at male initiation ceremonies. The Tyi Warra (or ciwara) headdress was used at harvest time by young men chosen from the farmers association. Other Bamana statues include fertility statues, meant to be kept with the wife at all times to ensure fertility, and statues created for vocational groups such as hunters and farmers, often used as offering places by other groups after prosperous farming seasons or successful hunting parties.

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Each special creative trait a person obtained was seen as a different way to please higher spirits. Powers throughout the Bamana art making world were used to please the ancestral spirits and show beauty in what they believed in.