Occupying a large area of West African that spans the national boundaries of Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso, the Senufo peoples forms a complex network comprising more than thirty subgroups with many local variations of language and custom. Three broad cultural divisions reflect differences in dialect and sculptural style: the southern Senufo in the region around the town of Katiola; the northern Senufo in the vicinity of the Malian center of Sikasso; and the central Senufo living in the vicinity of Korhogo.
Many aspects of Senufu life are influenced by the men’s Poro and the women’s Sandogo societies. Together, these ensure the community’s spiritual well-being. Initiations and commemorative funerals of Poro members are occasions for vibrant artistic displays involving sculpture, song, and dance.
A pair of male and female figures, referring to the primordial man and woman and to the ideal human condition, are displayed and sometimes carried in funeral processions. These figure pairs were known as pombibele (singular pombia), or children of Poro. Master sculptors produced pombibele for many Senufo-speaking communities of northern Cote d’Ivoire and southeastern Mali until the mid-20th century.
Pombibele were commissioned and cared for by members of poro, an initiation association for adolescent boys. As works of enduring importance, pombibele were crafted of the hardest, most durable wood available.
Pombibele were prominently displayed at burials and funerary ceremonies for distinguished individuals. In some instances the sculptures were positioned on the ground parallel to the deceased prior to internment while poro members performed masquerade dances. The pombibele were also carried in funerary processions to the burial site.
Seated figures of women, often shown nursing babies, are on view at some Poro initiation and graduation ceremonies. They not only honor women but also allude to the maternal role of Poro, which transforms uninitiated boys into productive adults. In some parts of the Senufu region, women have their own version of Poro, called Tyekpa, which likewise uses figure sculptures to honor deceased members at their funerals.
At both initiations and funerals, Poro members wear small, finely carved face masks with decorative extensions at the sides. The features of these masks and the wearers’ dance movements embody feminine grace and beauty, the masks being seen as the female counterparts of the ferocious-looking animal helmet masks exemplifying male power. Similar masks, made of both carved wood and cast brass, are worn by the Dyula people, who live among the Senufo.
The women’s Sendugo society facilitates communication between humans and the spirit world through divination. Small wood and brass figures are among the objects Sandogo diviners display during their consultations. Cast-brass ornaments, worn by men and women, are prescribed by Sandogo for their protective and healing powers. Through actions and art forms, Poro and Sandogo reflect the complementarity of men and women in Senufo culture.
The open expanses of the Western Sudan have facilitated a history of cultural exchange among the region’s ethnically diverse inhabitants. In what is today Burkina Faso, this exchange intensified in the 15th and 16th centuries due to a series of invasions from the south, resulting in the formation of the Mossi kingdom. At this time Bobo, Bwa, Gurnsi, Kuruma, and Lobi farmers were conquered by the Mossi aggressors, becoming part of a network of mutual influence and assimilation. Today many similarities can be seen in the artistic forms and practices of these peoples, a direct result of their historical connections.
The masks of Burkina Faso are abstract, combining the simplified features of animals, humans, or insects with repetitive, geometric surface designs executed in low relief or in paint. These masks often commemorate the meeting of a nature spirit and a human being, the mask’s imagery invoking the form taken by the spirit during the encounter. Such masks are worn at important funerals, festivals, and initiations, the dancer moving in imitation of the creature portrayed.
Figures and jewelry from this region also have simplified forms emphasizing repetitive geometric shapes and planes. Generally these objects are more personal in use than are masks. Figures are placed on family shrines, becoming the focus for offerings given to spirits in recognition of their influence and power. Specially made jewelry, owned and worn by a single individual, can signify a private request to a spirit for help or protection.
The Dogon live in one of West Africa’s most spectacular landscapes, the Bandiagara escarpment, a row of cliffs that extends 125 miles along the Niger River. This steep rocky terrain makes access to Dogon villages difficult and has sheltered them from attacks by neighboring ethnic groups since the 16th century.
Dogon oral history recalls that their settlement displaced a group of people known as the Tellem. Tellem artifacts, including figural sculpture, are often difficult to distinguish from those of the Dogon. Tellem terracotta bowls, associated with funerary ceremonies, also appear related to those found in many other parts of Mali and Burkina Faso.
Most Dogon are farmers who subsist in a harsh environment where rainfall is minimal and there is no permanent source of water. Prayers for rain and healthy crops of the staple grains dominate Dogon rituals, the source of most art forms. Some sculpted figures may have served as intermediaries between individuals and gods, while others were placed on altars dedicated to real or mythological ancestors. Many of these works still retain a thick coating of sacrificial materials consisting of millet porridge, animal blood, oil, and plant matter, which was applied to the sculptures during rituals.
Dogon wood sculptures range in style and subject matter from carefully detailed full-volumed depictions of men and women engaged in a variety of tasks to daring geometric abstractions based on the human form. Figures with raised arms have been interpreted as praying for rain. Other subjects, such as figures on horseback, women with children, or women performing daily tasks, refer to the prayer that accompanied the sculpture or to the identity of the ancestor depicted.
Other forms of Dogon sculpture resemble terracotta figures excavated in the neighboring inland Niger Delta region. There, at the site of the ancient commercial and artistic center of Jenne, ornaments of cast brass were produced as early as the 1st millennium CE.
African cultures south of the Sahara first established exchanges with the outside world through trade. By the tenth century, Caravans of Berber nomads had developed commercial networks that carried African gold north across the western Sudan. By the 14th century, almost ⅔ of the gold circulating in Europe and north African had traveled via these trade routes. Strategic points along the desert’s southern frontier became cosmopolitan urban centers, such as Jenne, Koumbi-Saleh, Gao, Kano, and Timbuktu. Because of its immense wealth, Timbuktu became perceived in the Western imagination as an African El Dorado -- a place at the end of the world where even the roofs were said to be covered with gold.
Important intellectual and cultural exchanges occurred as a consequence of trade, leading to the development of a distinctive regional culture that combined northern Islamic and sub-Saharan influences. While Qur’anic learning flourished at the University of Sankore in Timbuktu, local histories continued to be preserved throughout the Western Sudan in orally transmitted epic poetry accompanied by music.
Regional trade networks that relied on camel transport expanded with the increased use of horses. Since horses were imported, they added to the prestige and military power of trader. The equestrian motif eventually became an important status symbol of prosperity and leadership even among agricultural peoples of the Western Sudan, such as the Dogon.
Equestrian figures produced by Dogon sculptors are often associated with a supreme officeholder, the hogon. In Dogon culture, wealth takes the form of reserves of millet, sorghum, and other staples, critical to both survival and prosperity, that are stored in granaries with carved shutters. During construction, various rites and invocations for protection are addressed to the ancestors who may be depicted in the sculpted rows of ranks of male and female figures.