Experience Senufo at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Tuesday June 30, 2015

SenufoCôte d'IvoireMask (Kponyungo), Mid-19th/mid-20th centuryWood and applied color27.9 x 27.3 x 102.9 cm (11 x 10 3/4 x 40 1/2 in.) African and Amerindian Art Purchase Fund1963.842The Art Institute of Chicago

Everyone should travel around the world by viewing the cultural collections at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The latest exhibit, Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa, features popular and well researched art from parts of Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso. Senufo opens Sunday, June 28-Sept. 27. This international exhibit is the first African art exhibition that the Saint Louis Art Museum has featured in over 15 years. It arrives here from the Cleveland Museum of Art and will next travel to the Musée Fabre in the South of France.

The name, ‘Senufo’ is given to the art, language and ethnic group of people from this Western African region once colonized by the French. In the 20th century, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger became fascinated and inspired by the art, which became universally accepted throughout the world. A pair of male and female sculptures featured in the beginning of the exhibit, are classic examples of this artwork that is known to be rather expensive, with some pieces costing millions of dollars.

Face mask;Senufo identity is developed by different imagery, style and elements. Although no objects are the same, the research suggests common themes.

Poro is the male initiation association where boys become men through learning to farm, defend themselves and build strong relationships within the community. It does not exist in every town and is a secret society exclusive to males. The exhibit features figures and art used in crucial events of Poro. These objects are also used in funerals where men were commemorated for their accomplishments and successful achievements. The men are remembered for their influence in the community as a living elder or deceased ancestor. Some figurines are mobile and some are stationary display pieces. You can see the difference by the erosion at the base from nature and climate or faded color on the neck and arms from the human figurine being held.

The male helmet masks are a composite of ferocious animals encompassing a strong, powerful, aggressive and wild connotation. Some masks have more characteristics with feathers, furs, skin, tufts and different fibers. Certain types are used in detecting evil, anti-sorcery, and punishing evil doers. Objects that look the same may be used differently.

Although Senufo art has a large male focus, there are feminine tributes in the sculptures as well. Female anatomy, attributes, and the relationships between male and female as well as a mother and baby are showcased. Feminine masks are delicate and small with hairdos and earrings to beautify the woman. These masks suggest feminine character is elegant and introverted in nature.

Objects for the home such as, giant sculpted bowls and birds with hornbills, are common and simply for aesthetic purposes.

Some women in these communities use objects for healing and divination, they are known as diviners. People depend on diviners for spiritual advising in their lives. If a woman has a large collection of artwork, she is of high status, makes more money and is a good diviner. Diviners teach people to rely on the spirit world rather than believing that they can solve every problem on their own. The objects used in divination are believed to possess power for healing and fixing conflicts within the communities.

The exhibit also features black and white portraits showcasing life in the Senufo region. In the children’s area of the exhibit, kids are encouraged to interact with the miniature sized art where they may describe, label, sketch and write about the art that they see. In an adjacent gallery, children may sort, classify and categorize magnet photos of the works. They may also post the magnets to a board by symbols, elements, common themes, purpose and function. There are also books, a lounging area for reflection and relaxation, as well as a multimedia tour made available on the museum’s iPads.

Each of the objects, are beautiful and unique. Throughout the exhibit no two objects are the same or necessarily used for the same purpose as the exhibit serves to capture the essence of the Senufo label, which is often challenged. Some qualities of Senufo are present in other regions, and a constant question of what classifies the Senufo identity remains. For more information on the exhibit, Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa, please visit www.slam.org/senufo.

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