Les, 2018
Oil on canvas - 60.5х97
Bissau, Guinea Bissau
How does the traveller see it?
(Fragment of a post from a Facebook page)
Where does the soul of the Bissagos woman reside?

I bought this painting in the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, Bissau, in 2019. What stuck out to me was its realism; this is not something you often find in African art. That’s a Bissagos woman, the guide quickly told me. They don’t even speak Portuguese – in Guinea-Bissau, the Balanta, Fulani and Mandinka peoples can’t understand each other without Portuguese. But this doesn’t stop the islanders, who speak Bijago, from enjoying life. Women wear skirts made of black fiber, as well as glass beads on their wrists and waist.

There’s a photo that you can find on Facebook. It was taken in October of 2021 at the Museum of Anthropology in Madrid, and it shows a piece of female headwear from the Bissagos tribe. The dark fiber in the shark's mouth connects it to our painting. The fiber in the shark’s mouth does not, in fact, mean that the shark ate the host’s skirt instead of her. Rather, the shark is a spirit animal for the Bissagos, who are fishers by heritage. The shark mask, therefore, must be no less elegant than the woman wearing it.

There’s one other question that keeps nagging at me: why is the plate in the woman’s right hand cut off like that? Well. The Bissagos believe that only one half of the soul lives in a person; the other half lives in their spirit animal. This is just my guess, though, based on a conversation with anthropologists in Madrid.

I reckon that the half-plate we see on the canvas symbolizes her soul.

And if we ever come across something that is missing its other half, perhaps we should ask: is the other half somewhere in a shark?
And what do you think?