Male Spirit Spouse, Blolo Bian, 1900–1935
16 1/2 × 3 1/8 × 3 in. (41.9 × 7.9 × 7.6 cm)
The Dr. Gus K. Nicholson Collection
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Analyze the similarities and differences among various world societies
- Explain the relationship among religious ideas, philosophical ideas, and cultures
- Identify and describe common traits that define cultures
Connecting to the Work of Art
African communities used various sculptures as protection from negative forces. They were commissioned either by a group of people or by individuals and were an important part of the daily life of the people. According to many African beliefs, spirits represented life forces living in rivers, trees or rock. In order to keep them calm, a diviner (or a religious head) might recommend a statue be carved to honor it. Statues made to honor this spirit varied in their intricacy in carving. Among the most beautiful of the detailed figures are the spirit spouses carved by Baulé of the Cote d’Ivoire.
According to Baulé beliefs, all humans have spouses in the other world before they are born who can influence their human partners in the present world. The people believe that this spirit world controls the fate of the living. Figures, such as this one, serve as metaphorical and physical links to the spiritual world. The figures are seen as resting points for the souls and act as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Baulé art is sophisticated and stylistically diverse and is to be viewed frontally (like most African sculptures). Idealized figures, such as Male Spirit Spouse (Blolo Bian), are usually depicted standing on a base with their legs slightly bent and their hands resting on their abdomens—a posture that represents peace and unity. It is believed that this is how spirits show respect when meeting the living. This rigid stance is also connected with that of a morally upright person. Other common characteristics include scarification patterns on the face and torso, elongated necks, bulging eyes, and hair arranged in elaborate styles with intricate, textured designs. The wide-open eyes and large forehead symbolize intelligence and awareness, while the muscular arms and legs suggest health and strength.
The Baulé people believed that beauty helps in the continuity of a healthy and happy marital and family life. Thus, these figures were handled, rubbed, and cared for tenderly—resulting in the lustrous surface of this figure. They would often be clothed and decorated with jewelry. While the artist took great time and care to showcase the Baulé ideals of beauty and morality in such works, these objects would not have been displayed publicly. Instead, they were meant to be kept by their owners for private religious devotion.
The Baulé people, who are a part of the Akan peoples, are one of the largest ethnic groups in Côte d'Ivoire. They played a central role in 20th century history of the country due to their resistance to French colonization. Throughout this conflict, the Baulé people maintained their traditional objects and beliefs longer than many groups in constant struggle with European colonials.
- Describe what you see. How would you describe this sculpture to someone who has never seen it?
- How do you think this sculpture was used?
- What can you infer from this sculpture about the Baulé culture?
- Discuss symbols. What might these symbols mean to the Baulé people? What symbols are important to us today?
- How is this portrayal of the human figure similar or different to the Western idea of the figure? Do they share characteristics? How are they different?
- Look carefully at the figure and note which features the artist has rendered in detail, and what he/she reduced to geometric shapes. Why do you think certain features are emphasized over others?
- Consider the small scale of the figure. How would this work be different if it were life-size?
- Originally this work was meant to be handled and touched. Does knowing this fact change how you view the sculpture?
- Notice the marks on the figure’s torso. This is scarification, a means of adornment that has symbolic meaning and is considered very attractive in the cultures that practice it. What other types of adornment are shown in this sculpture? What are some ways that you and your friends adorn yourselves? Describe some of the ways your adornments symbolize your thoughts or beliefs.
- The wide-open eyes and large forehead symbolize intelligence and awareness, while the muscular arms and legs suggest health and strength. Explain how symbols can tell viewers the history and beliefs of a culture.
- These figures were handled, rubbed and cared for tenderly. Consider the objects that you consider sacred in your life and how you interact with them. Is this similar or different to how the Baulé peoples treat their sacred objects? Explain your answer.
- What does it tell you that these objects were not meant for public display? How does this show their importance as a private object of devotion?
- Consider the ideal of beauty embodied in this mask, including the scarification marks and the complex hairstyle. What equivalents for these things can we find in other cultures? What about in our own culture?
- Often the figures would be clothed and decorated with jewelry. Think about how we decorate and embellish important objects in our lives. How is this similar or different to how we honor sacred or important objects?
Students can compare this Spirit Spouse to other works of art with cultural meaning, then use those comparisons to learn about the societies who made them. When looking at the Spirit Spouse with your class, prompt them with questions such as: What do these symbols tell us about Baulé culture? What role does marriage play in Baulé society? How does the Baulé concept of beauty compare to our culture, and others?
Then, students can repeat the observation and questioning process with other artworks, like a Colima Dog. How are the Baulé and Colima cultures different? What role does religion and personal devotion play in their culture?
Students can create a T-chart to compare and contrast these figures, organizing their thoughts based on the similarities and differences found in the objects and cultures.
Subject Matter Connection
Students need to learn big themes and ideas such as culture, and apply them to different people and time periods. Also, many middle school students are not comfortable with nudity. Students need to be able to look past different forms of beauty to see the common traits of culture.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.