Sculpture of the Bamana Jo Society

by Kate Ezra
Yale University Art Gallery (formerly Columbia College of Art)

Nyeleni, sculpture for a jo initiate, 1978. Photo by Kate Ezra.

The group of jo initiates whose performances are said to be especially entertaining is that of the blacksmiths, the artisans who produce iron tools and wood sculpture for Bamana farmers.  The blacksmiths' performances are distinguished by wood sculptures representing beautiful young women, which the initiates carry as they dance and sing, or place on the ground nearby.  The sculptures are washed and rubbed with oil to make them black and shiny, and they are clothed with loincloths, beads and other ornaments to make their appearance more festive and colorful.  These sculptures are called nyeleniw, which means "pretty little ones" in the Bamana language, and the figures are seen as embellishments that enhance the initiates' performances and as representations of the physical qualities desired in young marriageable women.