Bamana / Bambara Maternity figure (Gwandusu)
Early 19th Century
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. Women with fertility and child-bearing problems in Bamana society affiliate with Gwan, an association that is especially concerned with such problems. Women who avai 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 i “things that can be looked at without limit”, 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”. Gwandusu: The seated mother with child is referred to as Gwandusu, a name evoking strength, passion, and conviction. It combines Gwan, the name of the organization itself that also means hot, hard, or difficult, and dusu, which translates as soul, heart, passion, courage, and anger. She is represented as both a nurturing mother and a female with extraordinary powers. Her heavy breasts hold the promise of milk for the child that clings to her abdomen. On her head is a hat decorated with amulets in the form of small animal horns filled with ritual ingredients, and strapped to her left arm is a dagger. Bot the knife and hat are commonly associated with powerful male hunters: their representation here underscores the exceptional nature of this ideal woman.