African Studies Quarterly
Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004


Legends, Sorcerers, and Enchanted Lizards: Door Locks of the Bamana of Mali. Pascal James Imperato. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 2001. 123 pp.

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This book is the fruit of 30 years of research into Bamana culture by Pascal James Imperato. Imperato first went to Mali to direct a program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development and United States Public Health Service Medical Team charged with investigating and controlling a measles epidemic in the region. Imperato became intrigued with Bamana door locks while examining and treating a group of children. A casual glance to his left brought his gaze into contact with a Bamana door lock. The presence and power of that lock left an immediate and lasting impression on him and sets the tone for the book.

Imperato not only effectively details the physical beauty of the locks but also their intense cultural, mythological, and symbolic significance to the Bamana people. This is no small accomplishment given the tendency of Americans, according to Patrick McNaughton who wrote the introduction to the book, to "consider art as strictly entertainment, a spare time enterprise that emphasizes pleasure and the senses." (p. xxiii) While this perspective may be valid for some art forms in some cultures, if applied universally, it results in the recreation of art into something "other than" or "less than" its original function.

The significance of this book is that Imperato does not recreate Bamana door locks into rigidly defined western "sculpture" or "arts and crafts" genres. Instead, he presents the totality of the locks as they appear in Bamana culture. The locks serve to regulate nyama, the vital energy that resides in all creation, which can be manipulated by soubaya (sorcery). But the locks, through their public display and embellishment with tiw graphic signs or pictographs, also reflect "a Bamana intent to use them to teach and remind people about the essential religious and philosophical beliefs and values of Bamanaya" (p. 22).

McNaughton states clearly the book is significant for the academic community for two reasons. First, it is the only extensive publication devoted to door locks. Secondly, Imperato's approach to Bamana art is holistic because he asks the reader to determine where does art stop and other cultural phenomena start (p. xxiii). It is this "space" that Imperato primarily occupies with this book by presenting the locks as "simultaneously religious icons, utilitarian objects and works of art. Their mechanical strength matters less than their magical powers and their social commentaries are communicated through symbols rather than words. Locks extol marriage, promote fertility, symbolize the gods, and direct social conduct. The lessons they teach speak of the creation of the universe, the value of balance, order and harmony, and the need for stability and equilibrium in the world." (p. 48)

Although Imperato's approach contains a wealth of information in both word and picture, the organization of the book makes it easy for the reader to find the level of information needed. The book is divided into three sections: The Bamana World; Portals, Doors and Locks; and Catalogue.

Those desiring to admire the physical form of the locks need only flip to the catalogue section. Those wanting to know more about how the locks are made along with the symbols used can look in Portals, Doors, and Locks section. Lastly, those wanting a more comprehensive understanding of the locks as they relate to Bamama culture can start with the first section, The Bamana World. This section contains information on Bamana society as well as their creation myths and cosmology. This is where you find the "why" -- the cosmological and ontological basis for door locks. This section validates the existence and function of door locks in the Bamana mind. The second section is Portals, Doors, and Locks. This section presents detailed information on the locks themselves: the history of locks, where and how they are made, the parts of the locks, their placement, symbolism, meaning, and their attachment to doors. The last section is the catalogue of nearly seventy images. Each image is accompanied by a physical description that can vary in detail according to the lock. Some have more information than others but the basic information given for each lock includes the height, patina finish or color, description of symbols, and the number of locking pins. Each section is followed by a wealth of notes and references and there is a comprehensive bibliography with well over 100 entries at the end of the book.

The images in the book are black and white. While this allows the reader to appreciate the structure and form of the door locks, and lends the book a crisp silhouette and polished look, it would have been nice to see some of the photos showing Bamana life and culture in color. It is not clear whether this was a cost issue or a source issue since most of these images date from the late 1960s to early 1970s with two from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This brings up an interesting point about dates. The images in the first two sections of the book are at least 30 years old, this sets the mind to wonder about the current place of the door lock among the Bamana, particularly with the continued presence of Islam and the impact of a cash economy on a previously patriarchal and agricultural culture.

This book reflects the meticulous approach of a trained scientist but with a keen sensitivity for the aesthetics of Bamana culture. It is reminiscent of the works of Charles Finch -- himself a medical doctor who has worked in Africa but also writes effectively on the mythological and aesthetic aspects of African culture. The book is recommended for those specifically interested in the art and/or culture of the peoples of Mali or those with a general interest in African art. Lastly, it is recommended for anyone who wishes to develop a deeper understanding of how Bamana art seamlessly integrates a most mundane task of daily life -- opening a door -- with their most sacred beliefs.

Denise Martin
University of Louisville