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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Senufo Rhythm Pounder in the Form of a Woman
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Senufo Rhythm Pounder in the Form of a Woman - PF.2960
Origin: Northern Ivory Coast/Mali
Circa: 1870 AD to 1900 AD
Dimensions: 63.75" (161.9cm) high
Catalogue: V19
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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The word Senufo essentially means, “speaker of the [Senufo] language” and has been employed to describe the Senufo tribe since the French first infiltrated their lands. The term derives from the Malinke word “fo,” meaning “to speak” and the Senufo word “syeen,” meaning “person” and “speech.” Originally, the Senufo people were probably part of the cultural conglomerate that occupied lands over a millennium ago now associated with the Inland Niger River Delta. Today, they number around one and a half million people spread out over a region encompassing the modern countries of Mali and the Ivory Coast, as well as segments in Burkina Faso. Traditional Senufo culture is based upon subsistence agriculture supplemented by hunting and inextricably linked with western Sudanic blacksmith technology. The works of Senufo art were generally carved either by blacksmiths, “fononbele,” or by wood-carvers, known as “kulebele.” Senufo art celebrates submission to the gods as well as properly instituted authorities, specifically as these relate to family and age-grade hierarchy.

Among the most famous statues in the corpus of African art are a series traditionally known as “ndebele,” a plural word that has been corrupted by Western literature into the singular “deble.” Sometimes, they are also referred to as “pombibele,” meaning “those who give birth.” Initially, these sculptures were carved as pairs representing the primordial couple. However, if one of the pair was worn or damaged, a replacement may be commissioned, and thusly the pairs were not always by the hands of the same sculptor. These large sculptures would have been used during the rituals that took place before and after the burial of an elder Poro member. The Poro is a male "secret" society, headed by the village elders, where the sacred knowledge of manhood is transferred to young initiates. .Such young initiates would be responsible for carrying these sculptures to the residence of the deceased. Ofterntimes, one “deble” would be placed alongside the body of the deceased during public ceremonies that followed. Then, as the corpse was transferred to the burial plot, the works would be hauled in the procession, swung and pounded on the ground in rhythm to the solemn music of the Poro orchestra. When the interment is finished and dirt is piled over the grave, an initiate may leap atop the grave with a “deble” and beat the soil seven times in a final decisive gesture meant to ensure the spirit of the deceased safe passage into the village of the dead.

This sculpture is the representation of an idealized woman. Her elongated, sinuous forms are based upon the ideals of femininity. Her face appears like a typical Senufo mask with its semi- circular eyes, arched brows, pointed chin, and protruding mouth with exposed teeth. Ritualistic scarifications are evident on her temples and her breasts. The ritually inflicted scars were considered marks of beauty and surely enhance this woman’s stature, as do the bracelets wrapped around her arms and wrists as well as her elaborately groomed coiffure sculpted in the form of a stylized crest. The woman’s physical stature reveals her inherent fertility, most noticeable in her large conical breasts, protruding navel, and large, abstracted genitalia. The forms and composition of the figure are just the beginning of its beauty. For in this work, form and function are intertwined and inseparable. Funeral ceremonies, while generally somber occasions, can also become celebrations of life, as is implied by this sculpture. We can hear the beat of its pounding, we can picture the dancers, we can sense something greater than our eyes behold. - (PF.2960)


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