Baga serpent
(Bansonyi or a-Mantsho-na-Tshol)

The Baga Snake, “Bansonyi,” normally displayed as an upright static sculpture is in reality a headdress representing the spirit “A-
Mantsho-na-Tshol.” With the help of a light framework, the towering polychrome decorated serpent is held on the shoulders of a
dancer concealed beneath a raffia covering. This dressing is detailed with multi-sized bells, lavish colorful feathers and tribal
cloths. The dancer moves rapidly among the cries of the on lookers, shaking and twirling around to create confusion, agitation and
dramatic motion during the performance. The Bansonyi is involved in protecting male initiates at circumcision; it is used during
droughts as well as appearing at funerals in groups as a male and female pair. It is thought that the Bansonyi itself symbolizes a
reconciliation between the aquatic world and the jungle, between east and west or the two halves of the village. This artistic marvel
is coveted by collectors. Round serpentine curves are most desirable and adds value to the piece.
Sources: A History of Art in Africa and Africa and Africa - The Art of A Continent

From the Book-
Art of the Baga
Baga snakes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY
GUINEA: Baga serpent, wood, 19th -20th c., Musee du Louvre, Paris

Guinea and Guinea-Bissau

Today, the Baga people, 60,000 in total, occupy the northern coast of Guinea and the southern coast of Guinea-
Bissau. They live in the marshy area flooded six months of the year, during which time the only way to get around is by
a dugout canoe. They live in villages divided into two to four quarters, which are in turn divided into five or six clans.
Traditionally, the village is headed by the eldest member of each clan. The men fish and grow cola nuts; the women
grow rice. Spiritually, they believe in a single god, known as Kanu, assisted by a male and female spirits. The only
fundamental ritual is initiation, which takes place every twenty-four years. Before burial, the dead are displayed in a
sacred wood and their belongings are buried.

Baga had rich traditions of multifunctional masks and sculpture, many of which were suppressed with the advent of
Islam. The best known of these is the massive Nimba (or Dumba) mask, with its great cantilevered large nose, a large
pair of breasts, crested head supported on the upper part of a female torso, carved so as to rest on the shoulders of
the wearer, his body hidden in raffia fiber. The mask can also stand on four legs. Sterile women in the Simo secret
society invoked it as the Mother of Fertility, and it was used at the first-fruit (rice) rituals, symbolically associating female
fertility with the increase of the grain. This mask appears at the harvest and threshing of the rice crop, is worn by
dancers at birth, marriages and other joyful ceremonies. This mask represented the very essence of Baga dignity and
culture. The Simo society utilized very large polychrome masks (often more than 5 feet tall), known as banda or boke
which are used in fertility rituals by this society, played a part during the dry season, after the rice harvest, and at
funerals. It has an elongated human face with the jaws of a crocodile, the horns of an antelope, the body of a serpent
and the tail of a chameleon.

Baga craftsmen also carve anok, a-tscol or elek, bird heads with human features that were used at harvest time and
funerary rites, also by the members of the Simo society. Every family owns an elek, which is part of the family shrine,
together with other objects: stones, vine twigs and bark reddened by cola nuts, dead scorpions or jaws of crabs, and a
fly swatter, important for purification ceremonies and indispensable in the hunt for witches. The elek represents the
lineage of which it is protector and the most visible sign. It punishes the guilty, for it alone is able to pursue witches
wherever they may be.

Baga snake headpiece can be up to 260 cm high and typically display undulation, polychrome decoration and
sometimes have eyes inset with glass. It is an emblem of Bansonyi, men’s secret association. This headpiece, also
called bansonyi, presents a python standing upright. Bansonyi lives in the sacred forest and emerges when it is time to
begin the boys’ coming-of-age rites. As receptacle for the most powerful spirit, bansongyi is believed to be the strongest
adversary of sorcery and destructive forces that could endanger the well-being of the village. Bansongyi also appears
at the funeral celebrations of the most important members of the community. They were held on the shoulders of a
dancer. There are also other masks combining human and animal features.

The Baga also produced statues on round columns, called tambaane, tsakala, or kelefa: extremely large head,
compressed on both sides, in angular, stylized construction; jutting nose; arms without hands, or hands resting under
the chin. They were kept in round huts by the Simo society.

An excellent reference on the Baga and their art is "Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention".
Click on the picture below to go to the page to view/purchase this book.