Date: 19th–20th century
Geography: Guinea, Niger River region
Culture: Baga peoples
Dimensions: H. 46 1/2 x W. 13 7/8 x D. 26 9/16in. (118.1 x 35.3 x 67.5cm)
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number: 1979.206.17
On view in Gallery 350
This striking wooden headdress stands at nearly 4 feet tall in the main African art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The headdress, which is known as a D’mba (or sometimes nimba), was created by the Baga peoples of Guinea on Africa’s northwest coast. “The Baga are demographically one of the smallest ethnic groups” in Guinea (Lamp, 1996b: 27). The D’mba headdresses are considered representative of Baga culture and are among the largest African masks known in the West (Curtis and Sarro, 1997).
The D’mba is a symbol of motherhood, specifically the selfless nature of bearing and caring for children. The headdress features “pendant breasts … with which she has nursed numerous children to adulthood” to underscore the duty of mothers in the community to raise children (metmuseum.org). Typically, the D’mba headdress is paired with a long raffia and cloth skirt and masqueraded before harvests and at special occasions, though there are fewer performances since the 1950s (metmuseum.org). According to Lamp, the Baga people were forced to abandon D’mba headdresses and ceremonies during the “Marxist-Islamic Republic of Guinea,” though some people are returning to traditions in the last 20 years (1996b). In performance, the D’mba was worn by a young male dancer and adorned with brightly colored ornaments. The dancer would hold the large headdress by the legs and look through the small holes between the pendant breasts (Lamp, 2004b).
In addition to calling attention to the birth of new life, the D’mba features many linear decorations, like carving of braided hair and lines on the face to represent the Baga ethnicity. The braided rows of hair are not characteristic of the Baga, but instead of the Fulbe people, “who inhabit the Futa Jallon mountains, where the Baga ancestors once lived,” making the hairstyle an acknowledgment of the past (metmuseum.org).
The D’mba serves to delineate time for the Baga peoples in at least two ways; its connection to the birth of children signifies both the 9-month period a woman is pregnant and the lifelong commitment of raising a child, while its use during rainy-season and harvest ceremonies marks significant times during the year for the community as a whole. From a larger perspective, the D’mba today signifies the delineation of different political rulers and when Baga traditions were forbidden and permitted.
A note about provenance
This D’mba was accessioned into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in 1979 upon the bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller for the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection. Prior to that, the headdress was at the Julius Carlebach Gallery in New York until 1956 and on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art from 1956 to 1978.
Art Institute of Chicago. (1960). Primitive art from Chicago collections: the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago.
Bastin, M. L. (1984). Introduction aux arts d’Afrique noire. Arnouville: Arts d’Afrique noire.
Clarke, C. (2006). The art of Africa: A resource for educators. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Curtis, M. Y., & Sarro, R. (1997). The “Nimba” headdress: Art, ritual, and history of the Baga and Nalu peoples of Guinea. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 23(2), 120–133.
I found this article particularly enlightening, both for its information about the D’mba headdress, but also on the topic of “ethno-aesthetics”: the study of objects while keeping in mind both the object itself and the context in which it is used. This is a valuable concept when examining “functional” art, or works of art that are usable objects, like the D’mba and many other pieces in this exhibition catalogue.
Fagg, W. (1980). Masques d’Afrique dans les collections du Musée Barbier-Müller. Paris: F. Nathan.
Goldwater, R., Newton, D., Jones, J., & Northern, T. (1969). Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hahner-Herzog, I., Kecskesi, M., Vajda, L., & Gabriel, J. W. (2002). African masks: from the Barbier-Mueller collection. Munich: Prestel.
This source was useful to study the D’mba and to better contextualize it as a type of mask that was prevalent in the Baga culture, instead of a stand-alone object in the Met’s collection. This source includes a sketch of the D’mba in the typology of masks, as well as specific information about the mask, what it symbolizes, and when it is used.
“Headdress [Baga peoples; Guinea]” (1979.206.17). (2006). Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved July 07, 2014, from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1979.206.17.
Lamp, F. (1979). African art of the West Atlantic coast: transition in form and content. New York: L. Kahan Gallery.
Lamp, F. (1986). The Art of the Baga: A preliminary inquiry. African Arts, 19(2), 64–67, 92.
Lamp, F. (1996a). Art of the Baga: a drama of cultural reinvention. New York: Museum for African Art. Munich: Prestel.
Lamp, F. (1996b). Art of the Baga: A drama of cultural reinvention. African Arts, 29(4), 20–33.
Lamp, F. (2004a). Charles Benenson and his legacy of African art to Yale. Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 26–43.
Lamp, F. (2004b). Sun, fire, and variations on womanhood: a Baga/Buluñits mask (d’mba). In See the music, hear the dance: Rethinking African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 222–225.
It is difficult to select only one reference by Fred Lamp to highlight. He is undoubtedly the preeminent scholar of D’mba, and perhaps of the Baga people in general. All of his writing contributed greatly to my understanding of this headdress and its significance to the culture of the Baga. This article, in particular, described the masquerade dance during which the D’mba is worn, which was useful.
Lamp, F. J. (2007). Hot space, cool space: The reinstallation of the African collection in the Louis Kahn building at Yale University. African Arts, 40(2), 36–51.
Lamp, F. J., Maples, A. M., & Smalligan, L. M. (2012). Accumulating histories: African art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery (p. 245). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sotheby’s. (1988). Important tribal art.