This summer, museum visitors can enjoy San Diego’s first significant introduction to the unique art of the Baule, an African cultural group from the Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. Titled Partners of the Soul: African Art of the Baule, this new exhibition of approximately 45 objects is guest curated by African art specialist Barbara Blackmun with works on loan from the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and private collectors.
From the first decade of the 20th century, the classic grace of Baule masks and sculptures has been admired internationally. Their refinement is a reflection of Baule values, which consider aesthetic quality an expression of correct behavior and interpersonal respect. Baule correctness and courtesy also extend to the interaction between humans, nature, and supernatural forces.
The Baule, who live in and around the cities of Yamoussoukro and Bouake in the Côte d’Ivoire, are related to the gold-producing Ashanti Kingdom of Ghana. For hundreds of years, their artists have created carved implements and furnishings, hand-woven fabrics, and gold ornaments that have been passed on generation to generation.
This exhibition introduces the most personal of Baule arts: the “spirit spouse,” a figure commissioned from a carver in order to please an individual’s husband or wife in the spirit world. In customary Baule belief, this immortal partner is left behind when its companion is born into human form and must be acknowledged with care, though the individual may also concurrently have a mortal husband or wife. The figure’s appearance is based upon images from the spirit world that the human partner experiences in dreams.
Other carvings in the exhibition, often similar in appearance to the “spirit spouse” figures, embody proprietary nature spirits who insist upon playing a direct role in an individual’s life. The artist flatters the spirit by idealizing it in these sculpted figures in order to insure that its human partner will not visualize its form as ugly or unkempt.
Baule spirit spouses and nature spirits carved in the contemporary mode are included in the exhibition as well. These works reflect the changing tastes in Baule culture that have resulted from increased urbanization and exposure to international popular culture since the Baule gained independence from French colonial status in 1960. Likewise, commercial figures based upon the spirit spouse tradition are also on display. The burgeoning export market in African crafts has provided opportunities for Baule carvers to join artisans of other cultural groups in working for a global clientele.
Related objects on view include miniature amulet figures, “mouse oracles” that assist clairvoyants in making decisions, and invocation gongs made of iron, which are displayed alongside their intricate wooden strikers. Portrait masks in the exhibition were used in performances to please and honor women of admirable character and to remember them after they had passed on to the spirit world. In Baule belief, individuals can sustain nurturing relationships beyond the temporal world through the beauty of these artworks.
Partners of the Soul: African Art of the Baule is made possible in part by the generous support of Starbucks Coffee Company, LaVerne and Hal Brown, the SDMA African Arts Committee, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Program, the California Arts Council, and members of the San Diego Museum of Art.
Spanish language programs and materials are made possible in part by generous contributions from The James Irvine Foundation and the Gerald T. and Inez Grant Parker Foundation.
Standing Female Figure and Seated Male Figure
Copyright UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Gift of George G. Frelinghuysen, FMCH 67.2033B and FMCH 67.2033A