With over one million people living between the Comoé and Bandama rivers identifying as such, the Baule represent one of the largest ethnic groups in Côte d'Ivoire (Figure One). Living in villages organically organized into compounds that center around family courtyards and open onto the communal gathering space, the Baule form independent communities of agriculturalists. They grow yams, maize, kola nuts and cocoa and supplement their diet with fish and pastoralism. A fairly egalitarian society, Baule social and political institutions consist of a centralized government headed by a king or chief who inherits his position according to matrilineal lines. However, elders and Goli association members serve as local representatives and judges.
In an environment known for its ambiguity, the geographic area in which the Baule occupy consists of open spaces surrounded by forest. For centuries, the distinction between the ordered village and the disorienting wilderness beyond its boards has constituted a central aspect of the Baule philosophy. Naturally, this manner of thought has influenced rich religious traditions, including the Baule belief in a sacred hierarchy consisting of the divine couple Nyamien and Asie at the top, mediating divinities in the middle, and the spirits of nature at the bottom. In turn, these religious connotations have inspired numerous generations’ worth of Baule works of art. While researchers like Susan M. Vogel caution that, “‘art’ cannot be described from a Baule point of view at all, simply because their view does not include ‘art’ in the Western sense of the word,” the Baule are nonetheless regarded for their craftsmanship which is as beautiful as it is contemplative. Intended to be incorporated into the context of a dialogue with the spirit world, Baule artwork is significant not merely for its form, but rather its function.
To begin, the Baule believe in the existence of the blolo—an invisible world that resembles and parallels our own. The blolo is, however, not associated with a true direction or location. With blo meaning “to praise” and lo meaning “over there” the term can be roughly translated as “I miss over there” with ‘there’ denoting the “village of truth.” Together, these phrases refer to the authenticity, clarity and sincerity experienced prior to our passage into this dissimulating, concrete earth. Therefore, the blolo is understood to be the source of life.
Known collectively as amuin, the inhabitants of this other-world consist of spirit-spouses and asye usu (nature spirits) who serve as intermediate divinities. When amuin request the making of an object to localize their presence, Baule individuals must commission ngoimanfwe or diviners, and sculptors to carve a waka sran meaning “person in wood.” Once completed, statues such as these will function as talismans or “…a material recognition of the existential personhood of these spirits, willful beings who choose to impinge on human existence.” ...