I'm by no means an expert but I will give you my thoughts and opinion.
At the present time I don't have my best Baule reference guide at hand, but from what I have read, Mbra figures often represent "Bush spirits". A lot of figures and masks in African art are zoomorphic - highly stylized or conventionalized representations of animal forms, and many are poly-zoomorphic containing multiple stylized animal forms. Often incorporated into those forms is the human form itself, as I often see it with the Baule figures referred to as Mbra, or sometimes seen in literature as Gbekre.
As stated from one Sotheby's auction:
"The Gbekre embodied the powerful and animal part of the human spirit which the Baule believe
exists in each person and lives in the bush. This spirit has the ability to devastate crops while at the same time warding away evil spirits and thereby protecting the village."
As for your question of why are they called "monkey" figures as opposed to "ape figures", when they don't usually (or ever?) have tails is an interesting question.
My opinions, and these are only my opinions, are that the figures are 'stylized' monkey figures. To me I often see it as a half animal - half human figure, especially with the belief about the figures stated above. The animal part of the figure, the monkey, has a stylized and often exaggerated head and the rest of the body often seems to me as more human in form, without a tail and with more human like feet. If the figures represent bush spirits, then they represent something in the people's minds and not an actual physical creature, it's a hybrid creature.
I would suggest the book Baule Art, Western Eyes
by Susan Vogel which can be found on eBay cheaper than you'll usually find it on Amazon. She takes an interesting approach on Baule art and I would highly recommend it to anyone just to read about how she takes Baule objects and shows them to Baule people and then to Westerners and talks about the views on the objects from both.
I lent my copy out so I don't have it to reference your question about the "monkey figures", but I believe she gets into it in her book.
From the editorial review of the book:
The Baule are a major culture group in central Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) whose art has interested Westerners since the beginning of this century. Vogel, a leading authority on
African art, has spent several decades researching Baule art and aesthetics, as well as studying the nature of Western appreciation of that art. In this book, designed to accompany an exhibition of the same name, Vogel has done a masterly job of revealing the meaning, relevance, and power of the full range of sacred, personal, performance, and utilitarian art objects among the Baule. Of course, masks and figure sculptures justifiably receive the greatest emphasis. The text, while scholarly, is refreshingly free of academic jargon and the use of footnotes, presumably to appeal to a wider audience. Accompanying the text are excellent, mostly color, photographs of objects in both Baule and museum settings. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries with an interest in art and/or African studies.?Eugene C. Burt, Art Inst. of Seattle Lib.
eroticcurator <eroticcurator@...> wrote:
This might sound stupid! But I'm now starting to collect African art
and I have a piece I'm researching the Baule Monkey. My question to
someone is why a monkey? Most do not have tails and the sharp teeth
are characteristics of chimps or apes. Who exactley refers to these
wooden sculptures as monkeys? The native Africans or westerners?