Sculpture of the Bamana Jo Society

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

Mali; Bamana peoples
Nyeleni (small Nyele of the jo)
Wood, fiber
H. 60.3 cm (23")
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.485

This sculpture has the distinctive features of a nyeleni figure carried by a jo initiate.  It represents a woman with prominent conical breasts which project sharply from her flattened chest and broad shoulders.  She has a long slender torso, strong straight back, slightly swelling abdomen, and rounded buttocks.  Her face is stylized into curved or angular planes. 

Her hair is coiffed in a high crest, and her body is covered with finely incised patterns that recall the scarification marks made on adolescent Bamana women in the past. The features of nyeleni sculptures correspond to the Bamana ideal of female beauty and sexual attractiveness.  Although the jo initiates must remain celibate during this time, one of the purposes of their travels is to introduce them to villages where their families have made marriage alliances in the past and in which they are likely to find wives.  The sculptures carried by the new jo initiates express some of the young mens' concerns and desires for their future wives.