Nyeleni ('Pretty Little One' Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The social, economic and spiritual lives of Bamana men, in Southwestern Mali, are governed by six initiation societies collectively known as Dyow (also called Jow, sing. Dyo or Jo). The six societies are N’tomo (also called N’domo), Komo, Nama, Kono, Chi Wara and Kore. A Bamana man must pass through all six initiation societies respectively to be considered a rounded man with full insight into ancestral teachings and traditions.

Called jonyeleni or nyeleni (pl. nyeleniw, meaning 'little Nyele', Nyele being a Bamana name for a firstborn daughter. Also means 'pretty little one' or 'little ornament'), wooden female sculptures are used by the Dyo association during numu jo initiation performances that take place every seven years. During the performance, the initiate children are 'killed' (jofaga, meaning 'killing Jo') and fully formed men are 'reborn' into the community as 'children of Jo' (jodenw).

Nyeleniw figures are washed, oiled, adorned with beads, cloth and jewellery, and then are carried by the jodenw, or placed on the ground, during the numu jo performance of song and dance (NOTE: numu jo performances tour several villages so that the men can display their newly acquired knowledge and earn gifts of money from villagers). The figures add to the visual appeal of the performance and communicate the eligibility of the initiates as suitable husbands. It is said that the figures also represent an ideal wife for the initiates; youthful, feminine and beautiful.

After the performance is over, nyeleniw figures are stripped of their adornments and stored for the next group of initiates to use seven years later.

Distinguishing Features

  • Standing female figure
    • Geometric form
  • Height = 23 inches
  • Hairstyles vary
    • Usually some variation on sleek sagittal crests
  • Faces vary
    • Usually depicted cubistically
    • Flat planes of front and sides of face, nose, and brow meeting abruptly, often at right angles
    • Eyes are usually inlaid with brass tacks, nails, or other bits of metal
  • Thick, strong necks, sometimes with a slight bulge
  • Broad shoulders
  • Flattened chest
  • Very prominent conical breasts which project sharply
  • Long, slender torso
  • Narrow waists
  • Abdomen swells slightly
  • Strong, straight backs
  • Exaggerated buttocks jutting out behind
  • Arms, legs, and torsos are highly cylindrical
  • Decorative incised patterns cover entire body (emphasis on chest, torso, and back)
    • Lines and rows of diamonds, zigzags, lozenge-shapes
  • Beads, fabric and other ornaments added to figure
  • Oil rubbed on figure to make it shine
  • Usually on a low circular base

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