The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Mali; Bamana artist
Boli (altar)
Wood, clay, organic materials
H. 46.99 cm (18 1/2 in)
Friends of the Museum of Art Fund, 2008.26

Boliw (sing. boli) may refer to any objects, man-made or otherwise, reserved for magical purposes among the Bamana. More specifically, the term applies to man-made objects that contain magical ingredients hidden beneath a thick black coating. Such is the case for this boli. This ambiguous, zoomorphic form is composed of a complex mixture of materials empowered with nyama, a dangerous life force that inhabits the Bamana world. The combined supernatural potency of these materials enables boliw to serve as models of the universe.  The internal structure is composed of a bamboo armature around which cloth is wrapped. A mixture of mud, excrement, blood, and other bodily fluids and substances are modeled upon the frame. X-ray analysis reveals that animal claws and metal objects are also commonly contained inside. 

Created by a hereditary clan of male blacksmiths, boliw commonly take the form of a ball, human figure, or cow. Some appear in unrecognizable forms, and may be as tall as a human or several inches in size. Sarah Brett-Smith discusses the significance of the ball-shape in relation to the poisonous excrement that largely makes up the object, and the shape of the stomach that prepares such waste. Human figures may refer to the wealth associated with (formerly) owning human slaves in Bamana society, and at the same time, reveals their power as “children” born of male sorcery. Only cow-shaped boliw are known to contain a hollow tube projecting from the rear, which allows “food” to pass through the object when inserted through an opening in the front. Cows are also a significant source of wealth in Bamana society, and boliw are believed to attract both.

Used in public by religious associations and in private by families and individuals, several boliw may take the form of an extended “family” among several villages.  Given that the “children” (and their users) are subject to the authority of their parent boliw, this hierarchy has important political implications in maintaining regional relationships. The objects are predominantly used to enforce law in Bamana society, and those seeking conflict-resolution may consult a council of male elders that use boliw to validate their judgments. Frequent sacrifices keep the surface wet and the object “alive.” With frequent offerings, the mound commonly seen in cow-shaped boliw may grow over time. This form also calls attention to the importance of termite mounds used to remove nyama from boliw and other important masks used by the Bamana. Without frequent use, the surface the boli becomes, dry, pale, and cracked, as seen in the example here.

Cory Gundlach, 2013 


Brett-Smith, Sarah. “The Poisonous Child.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 6 (Autumn, 1983): 47-64. 

___. “When is an Object finished? The Creation of the Invisible among the Bamana of Mali.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 39 (Spring, 2001): 102-136. 

___. The Making of Bamana Sculpture: Creativity and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 

Colleyn, Jean-Paul. Boli. Montreuil : Gourcuff Gradenigo ; Paris : J. Levy, 2009.

___. Bamana. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2009.

___. "The Kono," 185-199. In Bamana: The Art of Existence. New York: Museum for African Art; Zurich: Museum Rietberg; and Gent: Snoeck-Ducju & Zoon, 2001.

Djata, Sundiata A. The Bamana Empire by the Niger: Kingdom, Jihad, and Colonization 1712-1920. Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 1997.