Ancestor Shrines

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

Côte d'IvoireBaule artist

Female figure

Early-mid 20th century

Wood, glass beads, gold alloy beads, plant fiber, white pigment, encrustation

H x W x D: 48.9 x 12.1 x 14.3 cm (19 1/4 x 4 3/4 x 5 5/8 in.)

Museum purchase


Photograph by Franko Khoury

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

Baule sculptures, virtually identical to these except for the way they are honored by their religious adherents, are known as asie usu (nature spirits). They are thought to be responsible for less intimate problems ranging from crop failure to sickness and must also be honored on a personal shrine. The offerings made to them are applied directly to the sculpture, resulting in an encrusted appearance. Unfortunately, unless the objects are in place in Africa or have a carefully recorded provenance. It is often difficult to determine which category of spirits they represent, for historically collectors have cleaned up and polished the sculptures before selling or displaying them.