This expressive Senufo mask, part of the Todd Gordon collection of African Art, was auctioned by Lyon & Turnbull in 2014. Specialist Alex Tweedy examines the piece and the art & influence of the Senufo more generally.
The art of the Senufo, born in a vast geographical area across West Africa, was key in the creation of the artistic avant-garde in the early twentieth century. With its cubist shapes and striking masks, Senufo art inspired visionary artists from Miró to Fernand Léger. Pablo Picasso is famously said to have stumbled upon it after taking a wrong turn in the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, the first anthropological museum in Paris. The experience was a revelation, with Picasso later commenting:
“When I went to the old Trocadero, it was disgusting. The flea market. The smell. I was alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I stayed. I understood that it was very important, something was happening to me, right? The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things.”
Today, Senufo art continues to rank amongst the most sought after with African art collectors. Indeed, a standing female figure sold at Sotheby’s, New York in November 2014 for a world record $12 million, still the highest price ever paid for a piece of classical African art.
Interestingly however, the people who live in the region identified as Senufo would never recognise themselves solely as such. The term was largely borne out of French colonial rule in the 1880's, which recognised linguistic links across a three-corner swathe of northern Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso & Mali. There was certainly never any form of unified Senufo state. In fact, the region is composed of a myriad of diverse communities, each with their own traditions and oral history.
There are, however, some limited similarities. Most particularly the prevalence of male initiation associations or "brotherhoods" known variously as poro, lo and do. It is from these secret associations that a great deal of Senufo art originates, including the striking mask featured here, sold by Lyon and Turnbull as part of the Todd Gordon collection in June 2014.
The actual meaning of the term 'poro' and the exact functions of each association vary from place to place, mirroring the regional contrasts of the Senufo themselves. Many an art historian and academic have devoted their careers to the study of poro, never fully unlocking the secrets. But certainly every association emphasises discretion. At their heart is the transmission of otherwise secret knowledge, indeed every secret is quite literally termed a 'poro'. Some of these groups will only permit individuals who play a specific important role in society, be they craftsmen, healers or sorcerers. If we were to impose western terminology might even loosely call them "guilds". Others can be more general community based organisations, fostering the loyalty of members to both one another and strengthening their sense of place.
Another key element of the poro was the performance of masquerades for initiation events and funerals. Performers would wear various types of mask depending on the type of ceremony. The present example, known as a kpelie mask, was worn during funeral rights. Specifically, it was intended to move the spirit of the deceased away from the house whilst also honouring them with its beauty. The expressive features are framed by an elaborate coiffure and distinctive “legs” which have been interpreted as representing ear pendants. Though depicting a beautiful woman, it would always have been worn by a man, which symbolically expresses the essential dyads in Senufo thought; male & female, body & spirit, life & death. One might also argue that the use of copper plating is also seeking to accentuate the interplay between the light of the metal alongside the dark of the wood.
By appreciating the original use of the work alongside the aesthetic qualities, we arrive at the key aspect of African and indeed the large proportion of all “tribal” art that sets it apart from the vast majority of other works. An authentic classical African piece is, by definition, one that was executed by a craftsman and intended to be used in a ritual or functional context, never for financial gain. In that sense it is “pure” art – devoid of the influence or pressure of patronage. These were objects of power and incredible emotional intensity.