Secret associations and unknown artists lie behind these works that are rich in physical beauty and formal power
BY LEE ROSENBAUM | THE WALL STREET JOURNAL | 25 MARCH 2015
With their one-two punch of physical beauty and formal power, the carved wooden figures, helmets and masks energizing the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa” (through May 31) will knock you out, even though you won’t know exactly what hit you: Not even scholarly specialists have fully penetrated the deeper meanings and secret functions of the exhibition’s wood and metal totems, most of which were fashioned by unidentified 19th- and early 20th-century artists from Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, whose diverse works have been categorized by Western admirers as “Senufo.”
Take, for example, the commanding couple that confronts visitors at the show’s entrance. Proud in posture and aggressively angular in composition, these companion figures are intensified by exaggeratedly jutting jaws, projectile breasts (the female), beaklike genitals (the male), and parallel rows of incised scarifications embellishing their faces and bodies. Their protrusions, as well as the angle of their bent lower arms, are parallel.
It’s a small step, as discussed in the first gallery, from this African architectonic construction to the European Cubists’ deconstruction that objects like these helped to inspire. Such works appealed to modern-art enthusiasts, including the artist Man Ray, photographer Walker Evans and collectors Helena Rubinstein, Albert Barnes and Nelson Rockefeller (the previous owner of several pieces in this show). The exhibition’s second gallery reassembles works that had appeared in what was, until now, the only U.S. museum show devoted to Senufo objects—a 1963 survey organized for New York’s now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art by its then-director, Robert Goldwater, originally a modern-art specialist and a pioneering scholar of the impact of African art on 20th-century modernism.
But the deep significance of these figures for their own cultures is something about which outsiders can only speculate. Like many of the objects on display, the companion figures in the first gallery are thought to have played a part in initiation ceremonies and funerals. “Some suggest they may commemorate the primordial couple of a local creation myth,” according to their exhibition label. With eyes either hooded or represented as slit-shaped voids, virtually none of the show’s inscrutable beings meet our gaze, adding to their aura of mysterious otherworldliness.
What we do know about the most compelling objects in Cleveland’s attractive installation is that they were “used in dynamic, performative ways,” in the words of Constantine Petridis, the museum’s curator of African art and co-organizer of the show with Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi, an assistant professor of art history at Emory University who conducted field work in Burkina Faso.
To Western eyes, the African archetypes resonate with those from other belief systems that are better known to us. The “primordial couple” in the first gallery echoes the Adam-and-Eve story; the several showstopping, explicitly rendered nursing mothers call to mind the Virgin Mary suckling the infant Jesus. The exaggerated pendulousness of the breasts and the stolid expressionlessness of the maternity figures in the carved-wood Senufo examples bespeak their possible ritual function as “the image of the Ancient Mother, the central deity of the poro initiations cycle,” according to the label.
“Poro” refers to secret, restricted male associations that convey esoteric knowledge to their members. Described in the exhibition as major “patrons of the arts,” these associations were the originators of many objects in the show, including the large assortment of “rhythm pounders,” whose peculiar form befits their ritual function. Mounted on round bases, these funerary figures feature improbably attenuated torsos (think Giacometti) and were held by their long, spindly arms, to be thumped on the ground during deceased poro members’ processions to the grave.
Poro’s female counterparts—sandogo and tyekpa associations—have their own characteristic totems, often associated with healing and divination rituals. The Cleveland Museum’s own superb maternity figure, featured on the cover of the show’s catalog, was thought to have been carried on the head of a tyekpa member during funeral ceremonies. The glistening oil on the breast and baby is suggestive of mother’s milk, but was also applied to other wood figures as a spiritual offering and an agent of preservation.
More frightful than beautiful, the show’s most haunting objects are wooden masks and figures that incorporate agglomerations of assorted objects and organic materials. The spookiest are the two “Tell the Truth” oracle figures, used in divination rituals to uncover misdeeds and punish wrongdoers. Their carved wooden bodies are concealed under shroudlike, encrusted cloth coverings, with porcupine quills and feathers jutting from the tops of their heads. “They clearly embody a wild and unsettling anti-aesthetic,” as the Metropolitan Museum said in its description of one such figure from its own collection, featured on the cover of its 2000 “Art and Oracle” exhibition.
Fearsome but fascinating is the centerpiece of the final gallery—an “accumulative helmet mask” in the form of a sharp-toothed, open-jawed animal head. Over time, it acquired additions of glass (including the base of a wine glass), antelope horns, a bird’s skull, fiber and mirrors. If you look closely, you’ll spot a small Senufo-style wood figurine, jutting forward like a ship’s figurehead from the center of this dense, chaotic assemblage.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is the self-possessed female figure that Mr. Goldwater described as one of the finest examples not just of Senufo art but of all African sculpture. Her rich, dark patina and the sensuous flow of her curves distinguish her from less refined counterparts. This visual allure is embellished with adornments of red abrus seeds and white cowrie shells.
While best appreciated for the aesthetic jolt of its objects, gathered by Mr. Petridis from nearly 60 public and private collections on four continents, the show also has a polemical, revisionist subtext, propounded in its sumptuously illustrated, dryly written catalog. Its author, Ms. Gagliardi, regards “pure Senufo essence” as a western construct that oversimplifies the diversity of forms and cultural interactions between speakers of Senufo languages and other neighboring groups in West Africa’s three-corner region. The show’s last gallery demonstrates this fluidity of styles and influences that defy easy classification.
Whether or not accurately characterized by its title, the items in “Senufo”—approximately 170 figures, masks, helmets, headdresses, staffs, adornments, objects from daily life and photographs—will captivate visitors not only in Cleveland but also at the St. Louis Art Museum (June 28-Sept. 27) and the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France (Nov. 28-March 6). Translated from English for the last venue, this will be the first catalog in French about such works, which originated in former French colonies. Would that it had given us richer detail about the objects in the show and less emphasis on how they should or shouldn’t be categorized.