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“Boliw: Shrine Figures of the Bamana, Mali”

Peter Blum Gallery

The Boliw are the most sacred of the magical objects in the Bamana culture of Mali. Utilized in each village by a secret society of elders, these spooky little bovinelike fetishes are said to embody forces, hold court, pass judgment, and extract punishment. They are regarded as tyrants, and on them all social force depends. Villages steal one another’s Boliw to sap their strength, for a village without Boliw is, as a Bamana saying goes, a village in chaos.

Haunting, seemingly “other,” the Boliw are composed of a remarkable set of materials: around a central core, layers are built up of bits of wood, bark, tree root, and clay; horns, hair, nails, and claws of humans and various animals; and honey, beer, venom, and various bodily fluids, often related to death, such as foam gathered from the mouths of cadavers and the blood of sacrificial victims. Also prominent are urine and feces, including

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