Spirit Embodiments

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

MaliBamana peoples

Boli (power figure)

Wood, clay, organic materials

H. 38.1 cm (15")

Indiana University Art Museum, 70.48  

The Bamana peoples use power objects as abstract representations of the universe at large. The accumulation of materials over time serves as a metaphor for all members of a particular subgroup or association, such as blacksmiths or initiation societies. The boli is the most sacred and powerful of all ritual objects among the Bamana and is regarded as a microcosm of a larger model, the Bamana universe. Through the continual addition of symbolic and sacrificial materials over many generations, the boli harnesses an enormous amount of the nyama (vital energy) from all living and deceased members of a society. The boli is used by the men's secret societies to accomplish positive goals and to battle against evil forces that afflict a community. The boli is made of various organic materials including animal bones, vegetable matter, clay, blood, plant and animal fiber, and metal. Because of its awesome power, only skilled professionals can manipulate the powers embodied within the object.