Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Baule Sculpture of Spirit Husband

Catalog Number: J025


3.17" x 2.88" x 13.00" 
80.52 mm x 73.13 mm x 330 mm

Materials: pigment
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

This figure represents the spiritual husband of the person who commissioned it. Such figures are an important part of a practice found among the Baule, Guro, and other peoples that seeks to maintain earthly relationships by balancing spiritual ones. This practice acknowledges that each person has a spiritual husband (blolo bian) or spiritual wife (blolo bla) in the spirit world (blolo), an individual that the human being met before being born into the mortal world. This particular figure almost certainly belonged to a woman, since a person’s spirit spouse is always of the opposite gender—a practice that acknowledges the spirit spouse as a complementary double to its mortal caretaker, not necessarily a rejection of same-sex relationships.

Baule spirit spouse figures are known for their smooth, curved shapes and polished surfaces. Details on such figures often represent the ideals of beauty and status of the time and place in which they were carved. For instance, a typical female carving of a spirit spouse features rounded shapes and a placid expression, and the figure may sport elaborate jewelry, a trendy hairstyle, and intricate scarification. While this particular sculpture’s hands are in his pocket, many Baule figures of spirit spouses instead depict the spouse with hands behind the back.

Spirit spouse figures were among the more popular types of African art collected by French colonial officers in Côte d’Ivoire in the early twentieth century. Indeed, African artists began to carve spirit spouse figures specifically for the tourist market as early as the nineteenth century. As the figures made their way to Europe, many French artists began to collect them, often finding them at Parisian flea markets. In this way, spirit spouse figures are among several kinds of African art that have influenced North American and European modern artists. The American surrealist Man Ray included figures resembling spirit spouses in a chess set he created, for instance.