The Baule culture of Côte D’Ivoire, in Western Coastal Africa, make two types of figural sculptures that look very similar, but that represent very different spirits. Both types of spirit figures are carved according to the ideals of beauty for the Baule, with smooth, shining skin, heavy muscular legs, shapely calves, and elaborately braided and styled hair.
The first type of figure, known as Blolo Bla for female figures and Blolo Bian for male figures, are better-known as spirit spouses. The Baule believe that before each person is born, s/he resides in another, supernatural world. In this spirit world, each person has a spouse and may have children. When a person is born, s/he leaves the spirit world and enters our world, leaving behind the spirit spouse and children. When the spirits left behind become unhappy and feel neglected, they can cause mischief and discord in our world. To appease them, spirit spouse figures are carved so that the spirits may inhabit them and visit his/her spouse in this world.
The second type of figure is known as Asie Usu, or nature spirit figure. Nature spirits are believed to bring bad luck to the community in the form of crop failures, hunting failures, or even by possessing people. While the spirits themselves are considered to be hideous, with hunched backs, filthy skin, reddish hair, and small arms, the Asie Usu figure is usually carved as a beautiful figure, to flatter and please the spirit and to make the spirit stop bringing bad luck.
The primary way to tell these spirit figures apart is to compare the surface: while Blolo Bian and Blolo Bla are usually highly polished and may be clothed, the Asie Usu are usually covered with built-up layers of libations that have been poured over them. Unfortunately, determining which type of function this figure served is no longer possible, as not only is the figure very worn and no longer shows any surface polish, but it was also over-cleaned by a previous conservator, so any libations that may have been poured on the figure are no longer present.
For more information, you may contact the researcher(s) noted in the title of this exhibit entry, or Dr. Billie Follensbee, the professor of the course, at BillieFollensbee@MissouriState.edu