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A plethora of articles and books exist pertaining to the resplendent ‘Baule’ tribe of Cote D’Ivoire.

As a fellow aficionado of the Baule, I have personally read and enjoyed these publications during my several decades of collecting African Art. Many parts of ‘Baule’ history, their cultural beliefs, and even common practices have been debated and analysed by many; and to this day, there is still much unknown about many sacred ceremonies. Even the practices surrounding utilitarian objects found the length and breadth of the Eastern Guinea savannah villages and dwellings, have stirred much contention. I have had many friendly altercations with fellow tribal dealers over the years pertaining to just these issues alone. As a tribal hunter, I have followed the footsteps of those much braver pioneers, who ventured into the unknown of ‘the bush’ in search of knowledge, understanding, and of course, the rarer and important art pieces…

Anyone who has spent much time in West Africa, will appreciate that little is black & white there, especially, in more remote areas where ‘Western’ influences have had diminutive effect on the pragmatic logic of the dwellers today, and more importantly, in bygone eras.

I have been advised numerous times by colleagues, to shift my focus as a ‘Serious Dealer’, away from these sub Saharan plains due to the ambiguity inherent in much of the art, as well as of course the exploitation and expansive nature of the ‘copy’ market, which has been perpetuated in almost all adjacent countries in the last half century.

As a collector, I am much more driven by the stories behind the art, than the form of the pieces themselves. It is the inception and the purpose that attracts me, long before the allure of the beauty and craftsmanship are appreciated. It is the quest for understanding what such masks and figures meant to the villagers of the time, and the need for their creation, that interests and stimulates me. Indeed, it was the near subliminal metamorphism of the villager when enacting a ritual whilst utilising a mask or tribal object that increases my heart rate. Long before such objects are scrutinised and compared with similar pieces exhibited in auction brochures and museum catalogues! Most dealers, of whom I know a lot, have never been to Africa, have not met with Chiefs& Elders, have not enjoyed memorable evenings in the bush by open fires, listening to and watching interpretations of rituals by the proud descendants of such enigmatic tribes.

As both, the Christian & Muslim faith and beliefs, were passed down by word of mouth ‘verbatim’ by Jesus, the Prophet Mohammed and all their followers through generations, to an increasingly vast hoi polio; so were the customs and beliefs of the Baule, along with all other tribes. As nomadic farming peoples, influenced by seasonal and climatic changes, as well as territorial disputes with other tribes, the Baule tribe fragmented and spread out over vast areas, sometimes mixing and associating closely with other tribes such as the Guro (Gouro), the Senufo (Senoufo), the Yaure, the Dan, and Bete to name a few. Many instances of ‘traits’ from other cultures could be seen in various art forms in villages which formed part of this diaspora. In essence, this has led to the extensive debate about what is ‘true’ or ‘copied’ art, and which has aided the expanse of this unscrupulous market. You will hear that ‘All of the important quality art’ has been ‘collected’ from Africa many years ago. Paris dealers will tell you that unless it is listed in some article from some obscure collector dating back pre 1950’s – then it is less likely to be valuable. Provenance is the new name of the game.. This of course helps perpetuate the bottom line of those in the right circles and increases the value of such ‘rare’ pieces, already in circulation!

‘’To thine own self be true’’.. Shakespeare’s Polonius’s near last words of wisdom to his son ‘Laertes’, has also been debated to ascertain the true ‘intent’ of the meaning of this utterance. The world is full of such quotes. One only has to read many of the bard’s popular tales, to get an insight into the questions that have faced man from the ages, and will ad infinitum. ‘Kipling’s IF’ also teaches us to be true to our beliefs, and to question for oneself what is true & what is false. So, let it be with art. Did Vogel question what she was told about the art she collected a half century ago? She, along with the wise collectors of those days, would have used logic, tempered perhaps with a certain degree of cynicism, as some monetary exchanges would have taken place. She would have factored in slight embellishment to stories told to her relating to the age of art, and its actual tribal usage etc.

Certainly, when I and other tribal hunters meet with Chiefs, Elders and villagers on our travels, we are much better armed with questions, doubts and concerns. Necessity is the mother of invention, and African tribal art is no stranger to such corruption. It is the responsibility and even the duty of a dealer to do due diligence when authenticating tribal art, whether that is conducted utilising the ‘internet’ or in my case sitting with old men in the villages. Had Shakespeare written ‘A tale of two Tribes art’, he would undoubtedly have taken into account geographical and topographic limitations, as do modern day tribal hunters. Some critics have talked in the past about forgeries carved from hundred year old branches of trees found in villages… I dare say, the vast majority of such supporters, have never been to a remote African village!

In essence, as a prelude to my writings of the ‘Baule Collection’, I put forward this statement:

This wonderful collection of predominantly Baule pieces, we purport to come from a fairly small and unique cluster of villages in proximity to the Komoe and Sassandra river areas. Our association with the many Chiefs and Elders involved, is a culmination of countless visits over more than a decade. I claim neither to define the customs of the Baule, nor to propose the actual form of their art, other than from this particular area. Much as Vogel’s and Boyer’s Baule experiences were considerably influenced by their knowledge of the mid and northern dwellers, mine are certainly constrained to those of the South and East. In essence, where the believed Ivory Coast Baule migration from their Akan roots in Ghana commenced, and certainly where stories of the formidable ‘Queen Abla Aura Pokou are abundant. ‘Hamlet’ in his soliloquy, in an extract of his monologue, he says “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”. In relation to the Baule beliefs, and another area of some debate, many discussions with an eminent Baule Chief have brought this to mind in relation to the ‘Asye Usu’ and ‘Amuin’ spirits and creator God. These Chiefs believe for instance, that upon the physical death, their ‘spiritual essence’ can remain within the village to help guide and protect their families. This they believe has to be condoned by the ‘Asye Usu’ in the bush, during ritual rites, but can only be enacted if the ‘right’ had already been granted to the family previously by the ‘Amuin’. I expect much debate about my findings of how these villages beliefs and their practices hitherto, differ from many ‘accepted’ writings on these subjects. Suffice to say, that I have tried to stay true to myself, to trust my judgement, and to interpolate facts and stories as honestly as I can. As a fan of ‘Kipling’, I have trusted myself but made allowances for others doubting me. I have factored in to the various stories I shall be recanting, a certain degree of embellishments by the tellers, and where possible, I shall state whether statements are fact, witnessed, or whether I am writing as told verbatim.

Apparently… The hardest lesson aspiring writers need to learn is how to condense their writing; to not be afraid of leaving things out. Our thoughts and the language that we use to clothe them seem exceedingly important to us. We often find it difficult to leave precious words out of our story. Nevertheless, if we desire to be good writers, we must learn to harden our hearts and edit our writing judiciously.

I apologize as a writer, for not being able to condense my narrative, as well as some may prefer!

Steve Thanni for Fine Tribal Gallery ==================================================================

A most impressive and 'important' collection of Baule pieces, from a 'Sitting' Chief in Cote D'Ivoire - 2015
These pieces are offered for sale privately by Steve Thanni and were not owned by 'Fine Tribal Gallery Ltd'


View from outskirts of Bongouanou - Chiefs village is on the far side of mountain on right - 4 hours + walk


(Note: Several of the images displayed on this page will also be distributed to select Museums and Galleries in Europe, with rights granted for promotional purposes. However, all rights other than the aforementioned are reserved. Copying, forwarding or reposting of these images is forbidden. These images remain the exclusive property of 'Steve Thanni' and not the former 'Fine Tribal Gallery Ltd')


What started ever so recently, as a small 'eclectic' collection - has rapidly developed into what can be best described as a 'Major Collection'. It is in my opinion, eminently worthy of being exhibited at the finest of Tribal Art Museums. What makes this collection unique is both the cohesive nature of the pieces and their close association with a 'Sitting' Chief of the Baule tribe, but also of his ancestors in this most traditional of West African egalitarian societies. This particular Baule Chiefdom is one of the few remaining clusters of African villages which have adhered to traditional customs, and more importantly, practices.

Much of the 'Baule collection' comes from one specific village reputed to be at the 'epicenter' of the Baule dispersion in what was formerly, the 'Ivory Coast'. Following the diaspora of this once Akan rooted society from Ghana, they settled according to legend on a land across a river near a big forest. Following a tragic sacrifice of the then Akan Queen 'Pokou', the birth of this wonderful tribe occurred. Situated between the famous Bandama and Komoe rivers, this cluster of villages adhere to the oldest of Baule traditions and beliefs. Undiluted by the influence of neighbouring tribes such as the Senoufo and Gouro, the lineage has resisted change agressively through the decades despite the colonisation of Cote D'Ivoire by the French.

Several of the focal point pieces of this collection, were once exhibited by the National Museum in Abidjan, before it was tragically plundered by unscrupulous looters in 2011. Several have been exhibited in conjunction with the collection Museum in the UK, and have featured in Tribal Art Shows across Europe.

Most of the pieces although expressly and aesthetically appealing to even the untrained 'collectors eye', have a palpable spiritual presence and energy which is quite tangible. With a strong adherence to the spiritual nuances of the 'Asie Osu' there is a strong bias to the founding beliefs associated with both 'Nyamien' and 'Asie' in the form and movement of these pieces. The old 'custodian' Chief Aje, whose family and forefathers owned and even commissioned many of these pieces from renowned master carvers of the time, is near rooted in a past which he stubbornly refuses to leave.

This old and historical collection, is anomalous in that its provenance, can not only be attested to by documentation, but also by the former owner / custodian, as well as independent observers present at interspersed periods dating back from creation. Due to the remarkably small geographical proximity of the villages and the intimacy of this tribe, not only the bygone Royal and ceremonial uses of these pieces can be established, but also the utilitarian transitions in recent years.

Because of the profusion of facts, facets, tribal uses, and historical significances of the individual pieces, coupled with a plethora of functional and spiritual attributes and associations between the pieces as used in inauguration and funerary ceremonies as a collective, it is quite a mammoth task to assimilate, and even more of a herculean task to express coherently in narrative form.

Describing this collection will no doubt be an indelible story - not just of an incredible collective of amazing tribal pieces; but of a great Chief, a champion of a wonderful people, and a family. It will encompass stories and links between ancestors steeped in complex beliefs and tragedy.

Steve Thanni
Fine Tribal Gallery




Note: I do not seek to dispute the legitimacy of any written articles on this subject. I merely seek to write verbatum and interpret stories and facts given to myself, and our team by the Chief, and the elders of his and associated villages of the Bongouanou Chiefdom. African art and its myths are much debated, and many misconceptions were forged by early collectors trying to interpret practices witnessed utilising western beliefs.

One of the least known elements of Baule culture and practices relates to a little known 'secretive' subset within one of the most loved and written about egalitarian societies in West Africa. Until recently, little was known about the 'sacred' masks and ceremonies conducted in the dead of night on the outskirts of the village. Few outsiders were ever allowed to witness these dances, and transgressors were often killed by the warrior dancers. Women and children would be ushered into their huts by late afternoon, with grave threats levied lest their curiosity overflowed during the following evening and night. They could but sit huddled in fear of the ferocious noises and scuffling around them.

We at Fine Tribal Gallery, have not only witnessed the infamous 'Bo nu Amuin' and masked Ram dances, but have also been commissioned, to document these rituals accurately. The Chief a staunch tradionalist, has even bestowed upon us custody of key pieces of these ceremonies. Our challenge is to create a visual interpretation which can be exhibited to the hoi polloi through popular tribal art museums. This incredibly choreographed and ritualistic ceremony, is steeped in a bygone culture; in spiritual myths and legends, and more importantly 'tradition'. Famous tribal collectors of old, such as 'Vogel' and 'Boyer' have published articles on the subject of the 'sacred dances', having encountered Baule villages in the North of Cote D'Ivoire. These Baule, in close proximity to their Gouro and Senoufo neighbors were influenced a lot by other local beliefs held by their fellow savannah land dwellers.

Although similar in inception, the sacred dances of the Northern and Western baule offered vast differences in protocol and interpretation, in particular to the dances, and the 'form' of the bush spirit - the 'Bo nu Anuin'.

The literal translation of this name, is "Gods who come from the bush". It represents an equivocal supernatural being of anthropomorphic existence, which has led to numerous 'forms' being created over the last 100 or so years.
In the North, the Baule Chiefdoms adopted forms of the of the 'Bo Nu Amuin' which closely resembled 'Kponyungo' masks. These had similar animalist features of the neighboring Senoufo 'Firespitter' masks, but only had one head.
Chief Ajes Chiefdom adopted the form of some kind of warthog creature with 4 bulging eyes.

The function of the bo nu amuin is rarely disputed by authors. It is in theory, a protector of the village from other external beasts or threats. It was seen by the Baule, as a fearful, yet tutelary God whose wrath was spared if its needs were attended to, and its wishes granted. Another function, was to appear at the funerals of Chiefs and notable elders to assist in their transition of becoming 'ancestors'. This term to the Baule, conjured up a benevolent soul with altruistic tendancies who would stay close to the village and help in even its daily mundane activities.

Although not a 'secret' society, only a chosen few men were 'allowed' to witness or participate in the ceremonies, although they could be dancers or chiefs from neighboring villages. Women were vehemently prohibited from witnessing almost any element of the sacred dances and a plethora of hypothesis have been submitted to justify this.
Such explanations include, a myth involving fearful women from the village encountering the strange creature in the forest and being threatened by its magical prowess which the fairer sex was less adept to handle. Another theory forwarded by 'Boyer', in harmony with Chief Aje's interpretation, is that in olden times, Baule men felt threatened by the 'Ajunun' womens cult which was generally understood, if not accepted, as being superior to that of the men.
This sacred dance would seem to have been conjured up as a way of boosting male egos and exerting some dominance over the fairer sex who biologically were inherently superior as they were seen to be the source of life.

Historically, Chiefs and Elders would go to extreme lengths to defend the exclusiveness of the sacred dances, and even in modern times, many have denounced the exhibition of it's pieces in Cote D'Ivoires National Museums which were frequented by Baule and Western women alike. What is quite remarkable, is that not only is Chief Aje an advocate of both sexes seeing the pieces involved, and learning of the rituals; he has taken this thinking one step further, in gaining the acquiescence of his elders, to allow a western female collector to be the custodian of some of the pieces!

However, the present is not a true reflection of the past. In the past, the Bo nu Amuin was hidden in secret places outside of the village, where few women would be likely to venture. (More recently, due to the proliferation of looters working on behalf of unscrupulous collectors, these masks were kept in the village near mens latrines or by the Chiefs themselves!)

The ritual would tend to follow a set pattern of sequences.

First, the elders would visit the Chief and explain why they felt the presence of the Bo nu Amuin may be justified.

The Chief would then put on a specific mask which represented his dominance over the secret society. This mask with figures of the Chiefs ancestors adorning it on top, and below, would be worn whilst he meditated in private for a while contemplating the pros and cons of this request. When the elders would return, they would sit around the Chief in quiet until the Chief regressed to his hut. if the Chief was in agreement, upon his return, the ancestors mask would have been replaced with the Chiefs Rams Janus head dress, signifying his instruction to gather the select male warriors of the tribe and for the 'secret Rams masks' to be fetched. The Chief would then be escorted to the edge of the village whereby the most trusted of elders would venture naked into the bush wearing only a rams mask, to consult with the Bo Nu Amuin. They would pour libation in front of it in the form of local palm wine and take turns to spit on the Bo nu Amuin mask or masks present to offer a piece of themselves to it.

(They undressed to ensure they did not distress the Bo nu Amuin, whose benevolence according to legend was offered on condition of only being approached by males, and only being seen in the village embodied in a mask created to reflect the spirit.)

Once the villagers had talked to the Bo nu Amuin and invited it into the village, they would report back to the Chief who would then officiate the start of the dancing by placing a 2 headed Rams pot in the middle of a clearing in the village. The other participating dancers would then assemble from all directions dressed in nothing but a Rams mask adorned with copious amounts of raffia grass in order to hide their identities from the dangerous spirit.

They would then imitate the movements of a flock of rams, with occasionally one of them straying from the flock close to the edge of the village where the spirit lay lurking. As this ram approached, the Bo nu Amuin would start to growl and howl excitedly until the ram was herded back into the flock. There were many other choreographed sequences performed by the flock which I will elaborate on another time. The most spectacular of these however, I like to refer to as the 'Spiral Dance'. This involves the larger of the rams masks being danced moving in a sluggish disoriented manner whilst the other rams form concentric circles around it as if to shield the defenceless ram from view by the evel spirit. After some time, the Bo nu Amuin would make various failed attempts to reach it before retreating back to the shelter of the bush. Eventually, it would brave the screams of the rams dancers and the animated beating of nearby drummers, and pounce on the unsuspecting large ram. Just before this point, the masked dancers of the flock would split formation and reform in line with the big ram. As the spirit approaches on the final attack, the flock would adopt a spiral formation around the big ram. As the spirit approaches the end of the spiral, each ram would run in a different direction until all but the one being sacrificed had dispersed. Impressively, they would emerge as being a perfect circle around the killing zone.

At this point, the Chief would enter wearing a rams head dress with just one ram displayed, signifying to the spirit his acceptance of it taking one of the rams as a gift. (At this point, an actual goat or sometimes a dog or other animal was slaughtered in the center, and some of the blood poured into the two headed rams pot nearby to signify to the spirit that it was welcome to come again, as some of the blood would be kept for his next visit if he was ever thirsty.

What follows is a slightly grisly affair, involving disembowelment of the animal to discard the heart and liver.

Then depending on the reason for inviting the Bo nu Amuin, a series of ceremonies is performed whilst the spirit is feeling well fed and attended to. During this time, the sitting Chief would adorn a 2 headed 'decision' mask indicating that all are welcome at the ceremony including the Bo nun amuin spirit.

Towards the end of the proceedings, the elders would address the Chief and suggest that the spirit may be outstaying his welcome. At this time, the Chief withdraws to his hut and discards the 2 faced decision mask, choosing instead the Chiefs judicial 'Decision mask'. This mask used by Chief Ajes father before him, was used to mediate with arguing villagers and to settle disputes over land, goats, women etc, and even establish guilt. When the Chief had heard all the arguments, he would meditate for a while facing away from those present. When he eventually moved, it would be to look at either party, or away from a person. The one who saw the face of the mask was adjudicated to be the victor. The one who saw the back of the mask was the loser, or had been found guilty. No words were spoken by the chief during this decision ritual.

During the sacred dance, the decision mask wearing Chief utters only one phrase to the sitting spirit - "Kbuno", which means return to the bush. At this point, he turns away from the spirit, revealing the fierce looking back of the mask, and all the dancers join in with this request, shouting "kbuno" until the spirit acquiesces.

Narrative by Steve Thanni
Fine Tribal Gallery



In many parts of Africa, the 'Leopard' is believed to be the most powerful and dangerous animal on earth.
This is certainly the case with the Sub Saharan dwellers and those close to the savannah where the leopards are prevalent. To the ancient dynasties of these regions no greater symbol of Power could be defined through their art.
No Benin Oba King would want to have been portrayed alive or dead without a large bronze obedient leopard by his side.

Similarily, the Baoule tribe adopted the intrinsic significance of the leopard from their Akan roots. In this culture,
the lack of fear of this magnificent creature is the true test of a warriors strength and bravery. To a Baoule Chief however, the significance of this symbolism is exponential - as in the case of the exquisite carving presented to Chief Aje by the elders of his new Chiefdom in the Bongouanou district. After his innauguration ceremony as the new 'Sitting' Chief, Chief Aje was led to the Chiefs official quarters whereby a very small but secretive ceremony was conducted. It was attended by the out going Chief (in this case his Father), also by the most respected village elders, but more importantly, by the fiercest and most senior of the Chiefdoms warriors. This was the 'Power' Ceremony.

Only conducted once in his lifetime, the Chief was presented with three tribal art pieces.

The first was the 'Seat of Power'. A stool in the form of a female leopard. This particular stool was carved by
a famous master carver of the time who was responsible for many Royal pieces in several collections including Chief Ajes fathers. This imposing leopard stands solidly and defiantly on terra ferma but yet has a contented non threatening face and stance. On her back sits an Ashanti stool - a symbol of power from their Akan dynasty roots.
The whole leopard power stool was carved in size to ensure that Chief Aje seemed much more dominant to the leopard when seated on it. The leopard is also depicted as a 'mother' - the most dangerous of leopards!
The leopards legs are short to make it stand low on the ground, and its tail is curled up behind it to show it
has been tamed, and also to reduce its visual size. The tail is also how the seat of power was to be carried by Chiefs
minions, as only a select few were allowed to touch the Ashanti seat. No one apart from the Chief would sit on this stool.

(In reality, according to Chief Aje - his wife favoured this stool above others, due to its seats comfortable height, and so it resided indoors for most of it's existence. Apart from public ceremonies which necessitated its appearance, Chief never really got to use it!!)

The second piece presented to the new Chief, was his 'Power figure'. In this case, a stunning masterpiece of a carving by the same master carver. A truly 'one off' carving of magnificent form and presence. It depicts the young athletic looking Chief Aje naked, sitting astride another female leopard which is obviously subservient to this brave and dominant specimen of manhood. Its back is arched upwards to give a more comfortable ride to the Chief and to help elevate his feet from the ground.

A truly striking sculpture standing nearly three feet tall. The large Baoule male figure's posture is proud and regal with a perfectly straight back, an exaggerated long neck and an elaborate coiffure reminiscent to royal portraits of the ancestral Queen Abla aura Pokou. On both his arms are depictions of gold royal biceps bracelets with the adinkra symbology of 'Aban'. The literal translation being 'Fence'. However, in Akan mythology this represents 'Strength and Authority'. This carving is quite unique because, it deviates from previously adhered to depictions on such arm bracelets of the concentric circles symbol of 'adinkrahene', which literally translated, means 'Adinkra King'. To those of Akan descent, this latter symbol represents 'Greatness and Royalty'. This deviation, was insisted on by Chief Aje specifically, as he wanted to assert his humble nature and his allegiance to the egalitarian nature of what he has always believed is a peaceful Baoule community. Another remarkable deviation from the norm in such carvings presented in Power ceremonies, was the substitution at Chief Ajes request, of the Chief holding ornate regal staffs and any objects of war such as clubs, swords or knives, with what is obviously evident to be a calabash drinking vessel and a bowl for eating food. By using this symbology, he intended to show to both his people, and neighbouring dwellers, that he desired to be a champion for their welfare as peaceful farming land dwellers and that his focus as Chief would be to provide an abundance of water and food for all people in and around his Chiefdom.

Chief Aje expressed to me privately, that he did not want his Power figure to be depicted as a champion of warriors or as a monarchial figure dissimilar to the hoi polloi in the Chiefdom. This transcendent nature he believes does not apply to Chiefs or even former Akan kings, but to the creator God 'Nyamien', and to 'Asie' the God of the earth whom he has devoted his life to respecting. I truly believe that Chief accomplished his objectives.

The concluding piece presented at the Power ceremony, was a warriors leopard mask. This mask, not dissimilar to those worn by Baoule warriors, was presented to Chief Aje, to use during meetings with his warriors prior to any battles they would engage in; and for debriefs afterwards. The faces of warriors were not to be seen during such meetings. Such helmet masks were jointly feared and revered by the enemies of the Baoule.

NOTE: The complete 3 original pieces of the 'Power Ceremony' of Chief Aje, may shortly be in the 'iliohan collection'.
An amazing addition to an already magnificent ensemble and an intricate insight into the world of the Baoule tribe, and their Chiefs..

Steve Thanni, trading as
Fine Tribal gallery

** PLEASE NOTE: The person seen wearing the warriors leopard mask on the Power stool above, is not Chief Aje.
It is believed to be his deceased son 'Abu' who sadly died from Malaria shortly after this picture was taken. The elders would not allow us to take pictures of a 'sitting' Chief.
(We did however, have their consent to take these pictures of Chiefs Power pieces)