Powerless people, powerful art Art: The Baga people of West Africa have for centuries produced monumental works despite their small population and history of subjugation. The BMA tells their story and shows their art.

January 26, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The Baga of West Africa are a small, unpowerful people. They number no more than 40,000 in all, and live in several groups of villages along a 100-mile stretch of Guinea's coast. They have never held major political power, and have been subjugated by others, both African and European. Not a people you would think important enough for outsiders to study.

Except for their art. Over the centuries, they have created a body of art monumental in its proportions and more highly developed than that of much larger civilizations. Baga figures have been prized for more than 100 years by Western collectors who admired their sculptural power without knowing what they mean or how they relate to the Baga. The story of this art has never been told.

Until now. Frederick Lamp, Baltimore Museum of Art curator of the arts of Africa, the Americas and Oceania, has spent more than a decade researching the Baga and their work, and the result is "Art of the Baga," opening Wednesday at the BMA. The show, which was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York in cooperation with the BMA and debuted in New York last fall, is the first exhibit ever devoted to Baga art. The book that accompanies it is the first monograph ever published on the Baga. And this project is unusual for another reason -- it not only presents the art, but also tells the story of the remarkable people who created it. That, says Lamp, was crucial to his concept of the project.

"Usually when we see an exhibition on an African group or read a book about them, there isn't a sense that they go back in time or come up to the present. It's presented as a timeless society that existed somewhere in the recent past, but often we're not given an idea of do they exist today, do they still have a tradition, do they have a history, do they know where they came from?"

Where they came from

The Baga know where they came from, though no one can prove it. Their tradition says that they once lived in a mountainous region inland, which is called the Fouta Djallon. At some point in their past, they migrated to the coast where they now live, probably driven out by the encroaching Fulbe people. "If they did live in the Fouta Djallon and if they did migrate, there is no historical documentation on it," says Lamp. And if such a migration took place, it was longer ago than they say. Europeans found the Baga on the coast in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, though in their tradition the migration took place more recently.

The narrative of the migration forms the background for the exhibit's first section. When they came to the coast, they brought with them their most sacred spiritual beings, which are represented in their art. "The objects in the exhibit, needless to say, are not 500 or 700 years old," says Lamp. "They are types that represent what the Baga say existed at that time."

The supreme god, the creator god, is a-Tshol, represented by the figure of a head with a long, birdlike beak. "A-Tshol literally means medicine," says Lamp, "but it stands for something much broader than that means to us. It can mean the same kind of medicine that we take, or it can mean anything that is responsible for a change from worse to better, anything that effects a transformation."

This complex figure's beak also resembles a hoe, standing for agricultural creation, and its stool-like base associates it with the elders, the only ones in the society who use stools. "So God is in the image of an elder," says Lamp.

Also descending from the early period and more theatrical than the a-Tshol is the painted wooden mask known as the Banda. Incorporating human, animal and even architectural features, it "sums up the Baga environment," according to Lamp. The one in the exhibit from the BMA's own collection, dating from the late 19th century, is a spectacular 64 inches long. It has human eyes, nose and hair, the horns of an antelope and the jaw of a crocodile, and in its middle a two-story columned and arcaded building like those built by the Catholics during the French colonial period. The presence of the building and the crocodile (which exists on the coast but not in the highlands) suggests that if the Banda is indeed an ancient form, it has been modified over the centuries. But that's part of the dynamic of Baga art.

"This has always been a changing society, and still is today," says Lamp. He has called the exhibit "A Drama of Cultural Reinvention" because it follows the dramatic story of how the Baga have reinvented themselves in response to successive challenges. After the migration came the necessary resettlement and creation of a social order in a new place. It's not surprising that the principal figure associated with this period is the female one of D'mba or Nimba, which represents not a spirit but an ideal associated with family and stability.

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