Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2016
Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa Exh. cat. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art in association with 5 Continents Editions, 2014. 287 pp.; 281 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9788874396665)
Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa
Exhibition schedule: Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, February 22–May 31, 2015; Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, June 28–September 27, 2015; Musée Fabre, Montpellier, November 28, 2015–March 6, 2016
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Unidentified artist. Helmet. Wood. Height: 52 cm. Newark Museum, Purchase 1966, The Member’s Fund, 66.619.

Containing nearly 160 artworks, the exhibition Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa explores what it means to be “Senufo,” a term describing some of the peoples, languages, and cultures in northern Côte d’Ivoire, southern Mali, and Burkina Faso. It also questions the canonical assumptions applied by many academics and culture brokers to the definition and underlying parameters of Senufo art, culture, and identity. In challenging the long-disputed but tenaciously enduring belief in the “one tribe, one style” model of conceptualizing traditional African art, this exhibition and catalogue embody a more expansive view of Senufo culture that can stand as a model for future exhibitions. In particular, they both question the imprecise yet prevalent use of the single term “Senufo” for a broad scope of people, places, languages, cultures, and art. They simultaneously confront the persistent practice of limiting the designation of “Senufo art” to one primary genre or aesthetic routinely associated with this culture, because to emphasize a relatively singular vision of what it means to be “Senufo” discounts the incredible diversity in the region.

Curated by Constantine Petridis, Senufo not only looks at the complexities and intricacies of traditional Senufo life and culture—its weltanshauung (world view or philosophy)—but it does so in comparison with how Senufo art and culture have been perpetuated by Western academics. The didactic labels of this stunning exhibition are not only informative of the objects and their contexts, but juxtapose how these or similar objects were considered previously. The labels, informative texts, and contextualization of the pieces clearly situates the current objects within a framework of how one may see and understand them today, as well as in comparison with how they were presented and understood in a series of earlier exhibitions of Senufo art in the West. The critical analysis of past practices and their display clearly places the works within a full historical context.

Senufo is the fifth in a series of European and U.S. exhibitions focusing solely on Senufo art: Robert Goldwater’s exhibition at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York City (1963); one at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, Netherlands (1980); another at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, Switzerland (1988); and one at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, Germany (1990). In response to the previous shows and as the first exhibition on Senufo art in the United States in over fifty years, one desire of the current endeavor, as outlined by the Cleveland Museum of Art’s director, William M. Griswold, is to achieve a global reach that these earlier exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues did not attain due to the respective shows’ limited sizes and to the languages in which they were written (Dutch and German). In this regard, Senufo will be installed in the United States and France, while its catalogue, Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa is published in either English or French.

As Petridis notes, the show includes “striking objects in various mediums which African art scholars and collectors would not typically associate with the Senufo label” (“Beyond Senufo,”Cleveland Art [May/June 2015]: 9). In fact, by incorporating areas of Senufo culture that previously have been marginalized, connections between Senufo and arts and aesthetics of other cultures become increasingly apparent. For example, some masks in this show, if seen in another context, would unquestioningly be labeled “Bamana.” In fact, the catalogue describes how one oft-reproduced “classic” image of dancers in Ci wara antelope masks has been attributed previously to Senufo, Bamana, as well as Miniaka. Senufo serves to entice viewers to reconsider some commonly held designations and to question their veracity.

As described in the show’s opening wall texts, researchers have found great variation in the production, use, and patronage of Senufo art, beyond the canonical poro (male) and sandogo (female) associations that were the primary focus of Senufo research since the 1930s. As a result, the exhibition acknowledges the subjective nature of interpretation and the shifting meanings of the term “Senufo.” The show, therefore, establishes a historical record, beginning chronologically with information on some of the earliest interactions between Europeans and Senufo, including roles that contemporary Western artists played in directing the attention of art critics, scholars, and writers to Senufo art, early collectors, and early books (some of which are on display). With a combination of materials contextualizing Western interaction with Senufo art and examples of the art itself, coupled with linguistic background information, this room sets the tone for the show.

Following the introductory section is a gallery organized around objects included in the 1963 Goldwater exhibition in the now-closed Museum of Primitive Art. These powerful works are displayed with informative didactic labels and additional informational panels connecting them to the earlier exhibition. Yet as the accompanying Senufo brochure notes, the aesthetic of this gallery is intended to recall the relatively austere and object-centered Goldwater show from half a century prior. The caryatid drums, hornbill images, female figures, staffs, and masks are displayed with information on how specific objects affected Western interest in African art. Larger photolabels go even further—one describes Massa, an iconoclastic movement that occurred in 1946 in Southern Mali and purportedly was combating sorcery while promoting local authority to establish peace and prosperity in the region. As a result of Massa, artworks apparently were piled up and abandoned, after which two French missionaries collected numerous items that then made their way into Western collections.

The show next moves beyond the parameters of the Goldwater exhibition, which was focused chiefly on the aesthetics of the objects (Goldwater’s minimal text was supplemented by an accompanying catalogue that provided expanded information on the works’ cultural significance). While Senufo continues to exhibit arts associated with poro (male) and tyekpa (female) initiation associations (the primary users and commissioners of Senufo art in northern Côte d’Ivoire), this section also includes small rattles, dramatic tall and lanky Janus-faced figures, powerful staffs and staff tops, and impressive and dramatically lit face masks, as well as helmet masks with explosions of feathers and raffia. Many of these fit into a familiar Senufo paradigm—kpelie, fire-spitter, hornbill, buffalo, figural, face—while others move beyond the expected and, in some cases, appear closer to a canon more commonly aligned with a Bamana or Dogon aesthetic, such as the large-disk kworo headdresses with openwork reminiscent of bogolanfini textile designs or Dogon kanaga masks.

The extended exploration of divination and healing objects includes cases with small female figures along with a number of Madebele—otherworldly beings of the wilderness—represented by pendants, rings, figures, and equestrian. Some of the most compelling items are included here: an exquisite yet subtle antelope headdress encased in cowries and horns, and surprising “bag” figures with interesting patinas and textures, for example.

The section on domestic and personal arts includes not only additional references to the Goldwater exhibition, but expands upon that with game boards, containers, heddle pulleys, and knives. Complementing these small items are large signature pieces—doors and clay pots, with the pots being placed before a large photomural of similarly sized vessels in what appears to be a Senufo family compound, allowing viewers to easily imagine the original context.

The final section, “Beyond Senufo,” features Agnès Pataux’s intimate, gelatin-silver photographic portraits, made between 2006 and 2008. While quite different from the rest of the exhibition, these intimate portraits infuse a personal element, a perspective that is often missing from exhibitions. Much of the work in the show, borrowed from public and private collections internationally, was often initially collected without regard for the artists or cultures and therefore lacked contextualizing information on intention, meaning, use, or significance. This final section, therefore, is an attempt to evoke some of the missing contexts, the humanizing elements, in order to move the art beyond Goldwater’s love of form and reinvigorate it with a suggestion of its original philosophical and cultural significance.

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s entire collection is available online. For on-site visitors, there is “the wall,” an almost overwhelming electronic forty-foot wall covered with continually shifting digital images of objects in the museum (described in a 2013 Cleveland Museum of Art press release as being “the largest multitouch microtile screen in the U.S.”). To further increase electronic accessibility, museum staff developed an app for Senufo that allows visitors to hear scholars and watch videos while walking through the exhibition galleries. The only downside to the app is that it only functions on the museum grounds, due, as I was told, to copyright concerns.

In its Cleveland iteration, Senufo was accompanied by a series of events serving to expand a visitor’s often narrow experience of a show, including a film series, a tie-in with the museum’s book club, and an organized tour of the exhibition in conjunction with a parallel show titled Constructed Identities (December 14, 2014–April 26, 2015) as a way to explore identity across multiple frameworks. Senufo was also enhanced by a series of informative lectures and a colloquium, tapping into the expertise of top scholars in the field, and the companion catalogue by Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi. Expansive in scope, it covers a broad range of topics, echoing the exhibition’s sections on domestic and personal arts as well as religious, divinatory, and spiritual arts. Fully illustrated, its chapters address the mapping and labeling of Senufo regions and peoples, discuss how specific works left the area, identify select peoples and foreign institutions occupied with this passage, and note where the works landed and their impact in and on the West.

While ostensibly focused on a very specific region within Western Africa, the exhibition and catalogue take a broad perspective in addressing the definition of Senufo art and culture. They place Senufo art within its global perception, reconstruction, and influence over the past fifty years by incorporating elements of the roles exhibitions and collecting play in the resulting understanding of “Senufo art” in the West. Both the exhibition and catalogue interweave multiple perspectives, which provide varied lenses through which to consider the works themselves. They offer an expansive exploration of size, shape, texture, and patina, yet with considerable depth on individual objects and their specificities of materiality, history, context, and layered influences. They challenge and expand upon the often firmly held boundaries of what is considered “Senufo” by Western scholars and collectors, thereby further expanding an understanding of the richness and depth of what it means to be “Senufo.”

Rebecca L. Skinner Green
Associate Professor and Chair of Art History, Bowling Green State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.