Headdress (Chi Wara/Ci Wara)

Artist:  Artist Once Known
Culture/People:  Bamana
Place: Mali, West Africa, Bamako regiona
Media: Wood, metal
Dims: 37.1 x 16 x 2.5 in. (94.3 x 40.6 x 6.3 cm.)
Date: c. 1900
RTC No.: AF0079
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


Bamana (also known as Bambara) oral traditions credit Chi Wara, a mythical being half mortal and half animal, with introducing agriculture. The Banama people live today in many parts of West Africa, including Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. The Bamana culture, deeply rooted in agriculture, pays homage to Chi Wara through carved headdresses known as ci wara, blending antelope features with those of earth-digging animals like the aardvark and pangolin. These creatures, capable of opening termite mounds, align with Chi Wara’s teachings to the Bamana about farming, cultivating the land, and prospering as farmers. 

Stylistically, Chi Wara masks may be found in a variety of shapes—horizontal, vertical, or abstract, along with gender distinctions. These stylistic differences include sculptural variations influenced by master wood carvers across time and different regions. Female Chi Wara are adorned with straight horns and a baby antelope on their back, and male Chi Wara have bent horns and a phallus. The Chi Wara dance is seasonal and pivotal for learning and maintaining a healthy agricultural community. The dance symbolizes elements crucial to fertility, nature, and agriculture. It begins in the fields and progresses to the village center, featuring skilled young male dancers wearing male and female Chi Wara headdresses and raffia regalia. Women contribute by singing songs of praise for Chi Wara and hard-working farmers, emphasizing the importance of nature and recognizing the essential contribution of women’s labor to agriculture and human reproduction.

It is essential to acknowledge Ci Wara’s significant global influence, particularly on European artists in the early 20th century. Alongside other African sculptural forms, Chi Wara has played a pivotal role in shaping European art, captivating artists like Picasso, Braque, and Les Fauves and influencing the course of worldwide artistic expression.

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