The term N'domo refers to a mask that is used for one of the initiation rites of the Bamana people of Mali. It is believed that the Bamana were at one time matrilineal; however, since the emergence of Islam in Mali, they have been a patrilineal society like that of the Dogon and Mandinka communities in the same region of West Africa. Most Bamana villages are no more than 1,000 people. The relationship between father and son is a core axis of value in the Bamana household; therefore, the process of initiation, despite Islam, remains one of the central facts of Bamana life. This bond between father and son influences the clan name given to the son, the wealth of the family, the child's education, the identity of the child within the larger Bamana society, and the inheritance of status in the family. This entry describes Bamana culture, the role of blacksmiths in the creation of the N'domo masks, and the function of the N'domo initiation rites in the society as a whole.
N'domo is important because it represents one of the stages through which the child must pass to become a full member of the community. The leader of this community comes from one of the clans that make up the village. All members of the society trace their lineage back to the first male ancestor. Given that the society is organized along age lines, all initiation rites, including the N'domo rites, are important to maintain order and civic duty. Every person between 6 and 30 must be accorded a role and status in the society. Knowing one's role and one's status helps to maintain the discipline necessary in the village. The giva, or family group, is the unit that grows rice, sorghum, peanuts, melons, and millet. Each giva has responsibilities for the fields and their goats, sheep, cattle, and fowl. A young boy grows up learning that he must participate in the society at some level during his youth and, furthermore, that the initiation ceremonies will be part of his membership in the society. Becoming an initiate of N'domo carries with it the burden of learning how to master the various aspects of the society. Because the youth have been initiated into the knowledge that is essential to maintain the community, the village is able to sustain itself.
The Bamana have several castes, the most important of which are the farmers and the artisans. The nyamakalaw, or blacksmiths, form the largest caste. They play an essential role in agriculture because they make the farm tools and instruments. They are said to be descended from the Mali Empire technologists. The blacksmiths, called numuw, are special sculptors called on during the N'domo rites; they gain their power from Nyama, the energy that animates the universe, and they are considered the “handlers” of this power. They are therefore important in the initiation process. People in this caste are often feared because they make the masks that others use for ritual occasions. Indeed, it is believed that they have magical powers. Women of the nyamakalaw clan are usually potters, whereas boys learn to sculpt, carve, and invent objects for use by the village. A boy might work with his father for as many as 10 years, operating the bellows, then carving wood, and then finally using the forge.
It is the interaction of the numuw and the culture that produces the N'domo masks. Bamana ideas of art are found in many other West African communities because the blacksmiths in one country may learn from something being done in another. Hence, there are similarities among the initiation masks found among the Dogon, the Kurumba or Nioniosi, and the Bamana. Although each of these cultures has its own unique art, based on its myths, histories, and oral traditions, there are also similarities among them.
This is the context for the N'domo initiation mask. African art is called abstract because beauty is not simply the precise imitation of nature; rather, it is a way to distort or create in such a manner as to approach the unknown. The African artists of the blacksmith clan created and carved to please the gods, not to make money. One can see why there is no single word for art in any African language. Art not only serves a function, but also is expected to be pleasing. The Bamana use the expression tnafile fenw, laje fenw, which means “things to look at.”
The N'domo is one of several initiations. According to the Bamana, one does not exist as an individual, but as a person who is a member of the community. To exist as a person (consider the Latin persona, mask worn by actors) means that the dancer with the N'domo mask must play the part reserved for the mask. This is why the N'domo dancer covers his head. Authorities differ on the number of Bamana initiation rites, but it is generally agreed that there are six or seven. These initiations rely on the Bamana founding ancestor spirit's personality, symbols, masks, and ceremonies. What is called art among the Bamana seems to have been produced by the blacksmiths for one or another of these initiation societies. The perfection of the N'domo mask used by the Bamana in the second part of the initiation cycle for boys is found in the adult dancer who wears the mask. The vertical wooden prongs on top of the mask signify wisdom of the cosmos, the bulging face and forehead of the mask represent intelligence, and the large nose represents fertility and procreation. In the end, the ceremony for boys includes circumcision, teaching about appropriate behavior, and a revelation of the mysteries of the founding ancestor.
The N'domo mask is neither a theatrical accessory nor a piece of art in the Western sense. Rather, it is an object that radiates the energy and beauty of the deity or ancestor it represents. Thus, the N'domo mask confers on the dancer who wears it the power of the spirit it represents. All mask wearers, however, must ensure that they do not break the taboos of the mask, or they will create problems for themselves; in some cases, a person might even face death. Therefore, it is mandatory that the wearers of the masks swear secrecy to the powers of the mask.
When we consider the N'domo mask as a part of the initiation, we need to think about art without classifying it according to Western aesthetic ideals. Given the variety and number of works in which African artists have projected their thoughts in three dimensions as sculptors of wood, stone, bronze, and other materials, they might be considered to be some of the world's greatest sculptors, although their names have rarely been passed down.
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