Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Male and Female Twin Figures (flanitokelew)
These flanitokelew, or twin statuettes, created by the Bamana (also known as the Bambara) people of Mali, are most likely representations of a dead twin and its spiritual companion and reflect the importance of twinship within the religious belief systems and social institutions of many West African cultures.
Among the Bamana, when a twin dies in childhood, a statue is made and given the same name as the deceased. This figure is intended to provide a physical support for the dead twin’s nyama, or “life-force.” Should the second twin die, another sculpture is made and both are cared for by the mother of the children. In some Bamana communities, when a surviving twin marries, an additional sculpture might be created as the companion of the existing flanitokele.
Carved from wood, Bamana twin figures are highly stylized; they are given elongated torsos and their arms are held stiffly at their sides. The statues are sometimes adorned with beads or metal accessories. Although flanitokelew are usually created to reflect the sex of the twin who has passed, they are sometimes given breasts regardless of whether the deceased was male or female. In these cases, the breasts allude to the androgyny with which twins are associated because of their dual nature.
The twin figures seen here are distinguished clearly as male and female. Their physical differences, however, are to a large degree overshadowed by their sameness. The similarity of the flanitokelew refers back to origination myths in which the first people were twins of the opposite sex and the world was in perfect balance.
Christa Clarke, Senior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum
“A lot of representations of the human form in African art tend to be more abstract. They don’t have the same goals of realistic representation that has guided a lot of Western art. It’s really about concepts. But within that generalization there are many different approaches to the human body. So you have from Central Africa, in Gabon among Mitsogho, you have a very abstract depiction of the human body. In other cultures, in the Congo culture, you have a more naturalistic, perhaps, depiction of the human form. And sometimes the depiction of the human body and the choices the artists make about naturalism and stylization can be a result of the context in which the figure is used.
The Bamana in Mali, for example, have these wonderful, large scale sculptures that have a more naturalistic quality to them. I’m thinking of this female figure where this woman has these sloping shoulders, the rounded breasts, and she is depicted as an icon of nurturance, of maternal benevolence, whereas other Bamana sculptures have a more angular depiction of the human body, and in this case the female form is depicted as a more youthful ideal, almost as an erotic depiction. So there is really quite a range in terms of the way the artists approach their subjects.”
Bonnefoy, Yves, compiler. American, African, and Old European Mythologies.Translated by Wendy Doniger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Imperato, Pascal James, and Gavin H. Imperato. “Twins, Hermaphrodites, and an Androgynous Albino Deity: Twins and Sculpted Twin Figures among the Bamana and Maninka of Mali.” African Arts 41.1 (Spring 2008): 40–49.
Peek, Philip M. “Couples or Doubles?: Representations of Twins in the Arts of Africa.” African Arts 41.1 (Spring 2008): 14–23.
Visona, Monica B., et al. A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.