The Senufo Art Gallery showcases pieces of Senufo origin, two elegant carvings of the human form, man and woman, and a hornbill-adorned heddle, a tool used in weaving. These finely carved wood pieces highlight the beauty of Senufo art in both ceremony and everyday life.
Carved wooden figurines depicting the human image are among the most recognized forms of Senufo sculpture. Wooden figurines like this could be part of family or community shrines, or more contemporarily made for sale in globalized markets. Human figurines, usually on small pedestals, are also made as debele (rhythm pounders) that are used as time-keeping instruments in dances.
The production of wooden sculpture is the purview of the Kulebele, the woodcarver class. Members of the Kulebele live within Senambele (farming class) villages and carve domestic and ritual wooden items, as well as clear trees from the farmers' fields, in exchange for pay in goods and services, as well as special social privileges.
While sometimes thought of as a lower caste in Senufo society, the Kulebele have protection and prestige in their access to a group-specific supernatural power, the kafigeledjo. Feared and respected, the Kulebele are also thought to have the ability to turn into hyenas. Through the use or threat of these powers, the Kulebele maintain their specialized and exclusive role as woodcarvers.
Heddle pulleys, typically used in pairs (see below) are used to strip-weave long pieces of cloth, which are later sewn together into larger textiles. The heddle functions by lifting alternate warp threads so that the weft thread can pass between. The bird motif possibly depicts a hornbill, important symbols of fertility and intelligence among the Senufo.
About the Senufo
The Senufo are a set of closely related ethnic groups inhabiting parts of the Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. The Senufo language stock falls within the Niger-Congo language family and consists of at least 13 distinct languages, divided among four major branches. Some linguistic and dialectic divisions fall along caste lines, spoken exclusively within a caste, such as with the Djelebele leatherworkers.
The first major dichotomy of social division among the Senufo is the separation between the majority senambele (farming caste) and the fijembele (artisan caste). Usually the founders of villages, the senambele control most of the political and economic power in Senufo society. The fijembele generally make their homes among existing villages where they can sell their crafts. When moving to a new village, a fijembele is often hosted by a family already living in the village.
Richter (1980) reports at least six artisan groups among the Senari-speaking heartland of the Senufo. Richter also emphasizes that while the term “caste” is used to describe social-group divisions within the Senufo, the relationship between the social-groups lacks some of the key elements of caste systems, notably that the fijembele enforce their identity and use it to their advantage instead of having it imposed upon them by the senambele majority, often through magical powers unique to their group.
Senufo villages consist of farmland surrounding settlements of mud-brick houses. Among the senambele, cultivating and farming skills are highly valued. The title of sambali (champion cultivator) is respected and often associated with a predominant leadership role in the community. Cattle can also be important to the senambele as a means of wealth storage and for funerary ceremonies, but they are often tended to by ethnic Muslim Fulbe living in Senufo villages. Senambele also lease land to fijembele, who themselves will farm for subsistence. The fijembele look down upon having to farm, and their subsistence fields are usually worked by the women and young men in their families. And adult fijembele man having to farm is seen as a poor assessment of his craft. Among the fijembele artisan groups, men and women have different and unique tasks specialized to their group.
The Senufo are matrilineal and patrilocal, though it is customary for one male child of any union to be returned to the mother’s family to live with an uncle. Inheritance and status are passed through matrilineal descent, and women are prominent in religious imagery, such as in social alters for an Ancient Village Mother or in the female characters that men portray in masked dance. The matrilineal focus is so strong that even poro, secret societies of men that serve as the centers of religious and political life, have a guiding spirit who is an ancient mother.
Though celebrated and imbued with unique powers, women do not necessarily control marriage choices or power in the family unit. While elder women within the matrilineage are consulted, elder males have power over the distribution of unmarried women younger than about 40 years of age. Young women are often given to political allies as a means to reinforce bonds between matrilineages. Within some Senufo groups, girls of the same age-set all become brides at the same time during a weeklong ceremony. Within some fijembele groups, such as the Kulebele, exogamous male marriage and endogamous female marriage patterns, in regards to social-group, are enforced by the threat of group-specific magic, allowing the less numerous and less powerful social groups to maintain wealth and labor. The Kulebele, the woodcarving social-group, have one of the most feared powers among the Senufo stemming from the supernatural entity kafigeledjo. The threat of this power helps maintain Kulebele occupational exclusivity and the distribution of women.
The poro (sometimes called Lo among Senufo groups) is a cultural complex also shared with the cultures of the Western Guinea Coast (Baga, Nalu, Mende, Kono, Bassa, Dan, Kran, Guro). The poro serves as a part of a young man’s education, and from the poro many sculptures, carvings, and masks were made. Poro fulfil important parts of funerary ceremonies, and the more poro a man belongs to, the more connections he has in life and the more poro units he has to perform at his funeral in death. Young men are expected to join their matrilineal or their father’s matrilineal poro, but can also join others, many joining two and some three. Membership in a social-group’s poro is not limited to the social group itself, and poro could accept members from other social-groups, even crossing the senambele-fijembele divide.
The female sandogo secret society is similar, but with divination as its purview. As the users of many of the ritual carvings, members of the sandogo society have some part in the direction of the figures made. The sandogo have the ability to communicate with the bush spirits and the role of ensuring communication and harmony with the natural world. Sandogo participation in ceremony is necessary and integral, and among the Senufo the poro and sandogo represent a philosophical balance between male and female realms.
The Senufo are artistically recognized for their musical culture, including instrumentation from drums, marimbas, iron gongs, flutes, and horns, as well as their material culture featuring wood carvings, masks, and bronzes. Thus the material culture that represents the Senufo is largely the creation of a minority of the population belonging to the fijembele artesian social-groups, although the pressure from Western markets for Senufo art has led to some Kulebele wood carvers to accept senambele apprentices, so long as they join Kulebele poro, guaranteeing seven years of labor. Overall, Senufo culture is highly heterogeneous, with different classes, ethnicities, and secret-societies forming the patchwork that is life-together. Senufo art, in its ritual figurines, masks, helmets, weaving, instruments, and finely crafted utilitarian objects, forms the thread of ceremony that ties this patchwork of opposites into an inseparable whole.