Bamana statue, Mali
Small-scale female figures of this kind are known as nyeleni among the Bamana people of Mali. The figures are an idealization of youthful feminine beauty. The term nyeleni is derived from a traditional Bamana girl’s name and has multiple interpretations, including “pretty little one” or “little ornament.” Nyeleni figures emphasize a number of distinctive characteristics—most notably, a rather geometrically derived form. They have prominent conical breasts that project sharply from a flattened chest and are counterbalanced by exaggerated buttocks that jut out behind the figure. The arms, legs, and torsos are highly cylindrical. Hairstyles vary but usually exhibit some variation on a crestlike arrangement. The aesthetic beauty of such works is heightened by the addition of beads or metal accessories and oil, which is rubbed into the figure to produce a lustrous surface. These additions are comparable to the manner in which young Bamana women prepare themselves for special occasions.
Young unmarried Bamana men use nyeleni sculpture to represent the ideal marriageable woman they hope to find as a wife and partner.