ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY for National Aardvark Week, Part 2: Aardvarks in Bambara (Bamana) Sculpture

Happy #NationalAardvarkWeek!

Infographic via Peppermint Narwhal Creative

Aardvarks (Orycteropus afer) are widely distributed across Sub-Sahara Africa, and as such can be found in African visual culture from ancient rock art to contemporary works. The Bambara (also called Bamana) peoples of West Africa, especially in Mali, have a rich tradition of aardvark representation, which manifests in two main forms:

Koredugaso

The first type is known as Koredugaso. You may see these labeled as “hobby horses” because they are mounted on sticks & ridden by Korè jesters, but they are aardvark heads!

Here are some examples of Korèdugaso:

late 19th – early 20th century
wood and iron, 14 x 13.8 x 40.8 cm (5 1/2 x 5 7/16 x 16 1/16 in.)
Cleveland Museum of Art 1935.307

Pertaining to the male initiation society called Korè, this sculpture from the Koulikoro region represents the head of an aardvark and is part of a wooden hobbyhorse that is mounted by a ritual buffoon. The Korè initiates are divided into different classes, each having a designated mask. The ritual buffoons appear in pantomimes on different public occasions and poke fun at village authorities and other high-ranking individuals.

Cleveland Museum of Art
late 19th – early 20th century
wood, 14 x 4 1/2 x 4 1/2 in. (35.6 x 11.5 x 11.5 cm)
Michael C. Carlos Museum 1994.004.124

Animal imagery is widespread in African masquerades. The aardvark is represented in the Bamana Koredugaso, an object often referred to as a “hobby horse”. This piece is not a mask, but a prop that would have been ridden by a masked member of the Kore society. His costume also included a mask representing a horse, a mantle covered with power objects, and a wooden sword.

Michael C. Carlos Museum
Early/mid–20th century
wood, metal, and string, H.: 34.3 cm (13 1/2 in.)
Art Institute of Chicago 1964.229

The long, pointed ears, bulging eyes, pronounced snout, and delicate and muted incised decorative elements along its face define this Bamana koredugaso (wooden horse head). This head would have been attached to a long pole at its neck and used as a puppet in Kore society performances. Ntomo and Kore societies exist throughout the Niger Valley; Ntomo was a society for young boys to learn discipline before being initiated into the more secretive Kore society as adolescents. Bamana people understand Kore as the “father of the rain and thunder,” and therefore as related to agriculture—one of the key elements of knowledge to which boys are exposed to in their initiation into Kore. This head may have been used in performances for initiation ceremonies, which take place every seven years, the more frequent dances enacted to bring about rain for farming, or perhaps both.

Art Institute of Chicago
“A rare double-head Koredugaso hobby horse”
“Bamana Hobby Horses during the Parcours des Mondes Paris, 2011, Levy Gallery”

Here is a group of seven from a 2018 Sotheby’s auction:

Chiwara

In addition to Korèdugaso heads, the Bambara also incorporate aardvarks into the composite animal designs of the Chiwara (also spelled Chi waraCi Wara, or Tyi Wara). A commonly seen combo is antelope horns + pangolin back + aardvark head and lower body:

Line drawing illustration from the book African Masks from the Barbier-Mueller Collection showing how the antelope (top, usually represented by horns), pangolin (middle, usually represented by curved and patterned back), and aardvark (bottom, usually represented by the head/ears and lower body) are combined to form a Chi Wara design.

Chi wara” means “laboring wild animal” and is the name of the mythical human-antelope hybrid credited with teaching the Bambara farming. The aardvark and pangolin’s industrious digging of the earth inspired their inclusion in the farming mythos and Chiwara design.

The art of farming would have been transmitted to man by three animals: the anteater (timba), the pangolin (ngonso), and the python (sa). According to a belief widely held in the Segou region, the anteater [aardvark] knows the secrets of the earth, because it “spied on” the work of God at the moment when the seams of the earth had not yet been joined together. It thus knows where to dig the soil, but also had been condemned by God to flee from the sun. Message-bearing traces left on the ground by the anteater had already come to the notice of the diviners. In the west and south-west of Mali, this animal is often replaced by the pangolin, another burrowing animal, very rare in this part of Africa. (Zahan 1980:39, 74)

Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali (p. 204)

Here are some examples of paired male and female with baby Chiwara headdresses:

Late 19th – early 20th century, Bamana, Ségou, Koulikouro, or Sikasso Region, Mali; wood & metal
Left: 36 3/8 x 14 1/4 x 2 7/8 in. (92.4 x 36.2 x 7.3 cm); Right: 31 3/4 x 13 1/2 x 2 3/4 in. (80.6 x 34.3 x 7 cm)
Brooklyn Museum 77.245.1 & 77.245.2

Duality is present in art throughout the continent as an expression of essential concepts that drive human nature—from gender to humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Worn on the heads of male dancers, ci-wara headdresses are danced in male and female pairs to symbolize the fertility of land and animals. Each headdress represents an antelope, which for the Bamana is a metaphor for the successful farmer who tirelessly tills his fields.

Brooklyn Museum
Mid-19th – early 20th century, Bamana, Baninko region, Mali; wood, metal, brass tacks, grasses
Left: 98.4 × 40.9 × 10.8 cm (38 3/4 × 16 1/8 × 4 1/4 in.); Right: 79.4 × 31.8 × 7.6 cm (31 1/4 × 12 1/2 × 3 in.)
Art Institute of Chicago 1965.6-7

These headdresses were all worn by men in male-female pairs during performances celebrating the mythical farming beast named Chiwara, which introduced the Bamana people to agriculture. The rituals motivated young men to work hard. Each headdress combines the graceful horns of an antelope with the body of an aardvark. A young male calf sits upon the female’s back, symbolizing the fertile union of men and women and of the earth and the sun.

Art Institute of Chicago
Early to mid-20th century, Bamana, Mande, Mali; metal, mixed media, string, wood
Left: 26 7/8 x 8 1/2 x 2 1/2 in. (68.3 x 21.6 x 6.4 cm); Right: 33 1/4 x 12 1/2 x 1 5/8 in. (84.5 x 31.8 x 4.1 cm)
North Carolina Museum of Art 86.1/1-2
  • Ci-wara (chih-wa-rah) crest masks represent composite or hybrid mythical beings, combining characteristics from antelopes, aardvarks, pangolins, and humans. They often dance in pairs and are worn on top of the head.
  • The mother-and-child ci-wara is smooth in texture, while the male is more elaborate, with geometric cutouts. The female headdress with its jewelry and baby ci-wara on its back may depict ideal Bamana motherhood.
  • Ci-wara performance establishes norms of agricultural labor, entertains the community, and wields spiritual and ritual power. Pairing male and female masks promotes the cooperation needed for married life and farming. 
  • Ci-wara crest masks are made and performed by men so that the women can interact during the performance. The women imitate and interrupt the male dancers to request new jobs or social roles, or to add to the entertainment. This gives women an active role in the performance.
  • Ci-wara taught humans farming techniques and how to cultivate grain. This connection to farming has created friendly competition between neighboring communities, in both dance and farming.
North Carolina Museum of Art
Artist: Master of the Flying Mane
Early 20th century, Bamana, Ségou region, Mali; wood
Left: 79 cm; Right: 93 cm
Museum Rietberg, Zurich, RAF 202 & RAF 203

The pairs above are all in the Vertical style; there are two other primary forms, the Horizontal style and Abstract/Southern style (also connected to a related performance, Sogoni Koun). Below are examples of each Chi Wara style from an old display at the Met:

(bottom left = Horizontal, center = Vertical pair, top right = Abstract/Southern)

It is also important to remember that while these pieces are on display as static objects in museums, they are pieces of full-dress ensembles that were part of dynamic performances:

“Dance performance with Ciwara crests during a demonstration in Bamako (2010)”
Photo: Alexandre MAGOT, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Ci Wara Dance Ceremony” via YouTube

You can find more information about and photos of both Koredugaso (pp. 126-9) and Chiwara (pp. 200-33) in the book Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali, available free online:

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