In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bamana Arts and Mande Traditions

  • Introduction
  • Bibliography, Historical Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias
  • Online Digital Archival and Museum Resources
  • Journals
  • Arabic and European Accounts, 11th Century to Late 19th Century
  • Colonial Ethnographies, Late 19th Century to 1960

Art History Bamana Arts and Mande Traditions
Mary Jo Arnoldi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0123


Studies of the arts of the Bamana (Bambara) and related Mande-speaking groups have a long history dating from the early 20th century through the present. These arts are rich and varied and include monumental architecture, sculpture in wood and iron, masquerades and performances, leatherwork, pottery, and textiles. This article includes the arts of Mande-speaking groups in Mali, Guinea, the Gambia, and the northern Ivory Coast. These groups include the Bamana (Bambara), Soninke, Maraka (Marka), Boso (Bozo) and Somono in Mali, the Maninka (Malinké) in southern Mali and northeastern Guinea, the Jula (Dyula) in northern Côte d’Ivoire, and the Mandinka in the Gambia. This constellation of Mande-speaking groups shares many of the same cultural values and social practices, as well as a profound sense of a shared identity that was forged in this region’s precolonial empires. All the groups have a similar social organization that includes professional classes of occupationally defined specialists (nyamakala). Nyamakala include blacksmiths, potters, and leatherworkers, and these men and women produce many of the arts. Weavers, textile artists, and masons are also skilled artisans, but they are not nyamakala. This article provides an overview of historical and more-recent sources. The general reference works and the journals are excellent introductions to Mande history and culture and provide users with essential background information that is critical for understanding the role that the arts and artists play in Mande societies. Online catalogues of collections in museums and archives are critical resources for the study of the visual arts. There is also a section on early travelers’ accounts and a section on colonial histories and ethnographies. The 1960s mark the end of the colonial period for most of West Africa (exceptions are Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, which gained independence in 1973 and 1975, respectively). The 1960s also marked the beginning of exhibitions devoted to Bamana and Mande arts, and an increasing numbers of books and articles that have continued into the early 21st century. The second part of this article includes post-1960 studies and is organized into six sections. The first subsection examines the relevant Archaeological Research, while the second subsection focuses on the major groups of Mande Artists: Blacksmiths, Leatherworkers, Masons, and Potters. This is followed by subsections organized by medium, including Architecture and the Built Environment, Figurative Sculpture and Masks, Masquerade and Performance, and Textiles and Dress. The study of the arts has always been interdisciplinary, and it has engaged critical perspectives from anthropology, archaeology, art history, and history. The resources included in this article reflect the interdisciplinary nature of this scholarship.

Bibliography, Historical Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias

A bibliography by Paule Brasseur (Brasseur 1976), a series of historical dictionaries for West African countries (Imperato and Imperato 2008; Gailey 1987; Camara, et al. 2014; Mundt 1995; Mendy and Lobban 2013), and an encyclopedia (Middleton and Miller 2008) include overviews and bibliographic citations on Bamana and Mande cultures and their histories. The dictionaries are especially good introductions for students to Mande peoples, cultures, and the arts. Each country’s dictionary includes an entry on ethnic groups, along with entries on historical figures and events from the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial eras.

  • Brasseur, Paule. Bibliographie générale du Mali, 1961–1970. Catalogues et Documents 16.2. Dakar, Senegal: Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, 1976.

    The bibliography includes publications through the first decade of Mali’s independence and covers a wide range of topics in the humanities and social sciences.

  • Camara, Mohamed Saliou, Thomas O’Toole, and Janice E. Baker. Historical Dictionary of Guinea. 5th ed. Historical Dictionaries of Africa. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2014.

    The focus of the dictionary is key historical figures and events in the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial eras that serve as important context for the study of the arts. The authors include entries on the Maninka, a major Mande group, as well as a bibliography related to culture, society, and language.

  • Gailey, Harry A. Historical Dictionary of the Gambia. 2d ed. African Historical Dictionaries 4. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1987.

    The Mandinka compose over 40 percent of the population of the Gambia, and they played an important role in the precolonial history of this region. The dictionary includes entries on the Mandinka and on the history of the Mande kingdoms in this area.

  • Imperato, Pascal James, and Gavin H. Imperato. Historical Dictionary of Mali. 4th ed. Historical Dictionaries of Africa 107. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008.

    The three largest Mande groups in Mali (the Bamana, the Maninka, and the Soninke) compose nearly half of the country’s population. These groups played important roles in Mali’s precolonial empires. The authors include entries on each of these major ethnic groups in Mali, as well as a bibliography on arts and culture.

  • Mendy, Peter Karibe, and Richard A. Lobban Jr. Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. 4th ed. Historical Dictionaries of Africa. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013.

    The Mandinka and Fula groups compose the majority of the population of this tiny nation. The dictionary includes entries on Mandinka history and culture, as well as colonial and postcolonial history.

  • Middleton, John, and Joseph C. Miller, eds. New Encyclopedia of Africa. 5 vols. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s, 2008.

    The encyclopedia entry on Mali (Vol. 3, pp. 461–469) provides a useful overview of the country and an index for articles in the encyclopedia on specific ethnic groups, including the Bamana and related Mande groups.

  • Mundt, Robert J. Historical Dictionary of Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). 2d ed. African Historical Dictionaries 41. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1995.

    Descendants of the early Mande conquerors occupy territory in northwestern Côte d’Ivoire. Mande peoples in this area, including the Maninka, Bamana, Jula, and smaller related groups, make up about 17 percent of the present-day population of Côte d’Ivoire. The dictionary includes entries on these ethnic groups and on the history of the 18th- and 19th-century Jula Empire of Kong, which was located in this northern zone.

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