Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Côte d'Ivoire; Baule peoples

Waka snan (figure)


H. 44.1 cm (17 3/8")

Indiana University Art Museum, Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, 2001.134

Among the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire, when someone is confronted with a personal problem connected to marriage or fertility, they will consult a komien (diviner) to determine the cause. Woven into the intricate belief system among Baule is the idea that when one is born into this world, an otherworldly lover or blolo bian (spirit spouse) is left behind in the spirit world (Vogel 1980; Ravenhill 1980). This spirit may become jealous of an individual's relationships in the living world and may disrupt the person's life until a shrine is built to honor it. In this case, the carving of the figure itself is an offering. The sculpture must be beautiful in order to appease the spirit spouse and to attract it into the figure. Offerings made to blolo bian are similar to those one would make to a houseguest; a bowl of food or water is placed near the sculpture, and it is lovingly held and polished with palm oil, resulting in a rich patina that is equally appealing to collectors of African art (Vogel 1973).