Description of the Boli cult object
Musée du quai Branly – La Collection (Skira Flammarion, 2009)
«The gallery owner and collector Jean-Michel Huguenin had owned this piece for long time, having acquired it in Mali in 1972.
This object has two «brothers» in the musée du quai Branly, one of which comes from the collection of the musée de l’Homme, and the other from the collection of the musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. What we know best about these strange objects called boli is the story of their appearance in European collections, thanks to Michel Leiris's publications (report of the famous Dakar-Djibouti expedition, headed by Marcel Griaule, who «collected» 3500 pieces for the musée du Trocadéro that Leiris narrated in the book: "l’Afrique Fantôme". Insofar as the boli related to that period is concerned, Michel Leiris did not hide the brutal nature of the «seizure».
The Konothat cult to which the boliw (plural of boli) belong, is still relatively unknown.
The boli allows to harness, accumulate and control a vital energy called the nyama, a sort of natural and spiritual force. As the most sacred object of the Bamana people (Mali), it is kept in a shrine, sheltered from the eyes of the uninitiated.
Strictly speaking, it is less to do with sculpture than with assembling, because the object is fashioned, according to a highly complex symbolic ritual, from an amalgam of various fragments: wood, bark, leaves, mud, leather, cotton thread, bone, hair, claws, fangs, blood and other animal and human body parts, such as placenta, phalanx, etc.
In order for these condensed forms of mineral, animal and vegetal forces to be effective, they need to be flattered by active words, looked after by subtle sprinklings and fed by bloody sacrifices.
The crusty glaze, fashioned with cream of millet and dried blood, as well as vegetable powder and cola nuts chewed and then spat out during prayers and sacrifices addressed to Kono testify to the ancient nature and the force of the object.
This mixture of organic matter gives the boli a barely identifiable shape: the appearance is zoomorphous but does not relate to any specific animal. According to certain specialists, the boli donated by Jean-Michel Huguenin is none other than the Makongoba, identified as the «royal fetish» of the State of Segou (1652-1862); but others give it the name of Watiriwa. A remarkable feat about this boli is that while it horrified missionaries, it immediately fascinated avant-garde artists in the 1930s and particularly the surrealists. Its provocative, mysterious, fetish, objectified, magical character, haunted by themes of sacrifice has undoubtedly played a role: it is a fairy object, which comes across as being interesting and even conceptual, without necessarily having to explain the reasons why».