As I suggest in my Wall Street Journal review on tomorrow’s “Arts in Review” page (online now), the Cleveland Museum’s stunning installation of what Westerners (but not the creators themselves) call “Senufo” art produces an immediate “wow” effect.
But the museum’s African art curator, Constantine Petridis, had a didactic, as well as aesthetic, agenda in how he orchestrated this display.
Although he chose the objects for their beauty and power, Petridis kicked off the presentation in a way that struck me, at first, as wrongfooted—emphasizing the impact that these sculptures had on modern artists such as Picasso and Léger. As he later explained to me, he was interested not only in focusing on the objects themselves, but also in elucidating Westerners’ historic perceptions of this material.
At the beginning of my WSJ review, I note that it’s a small step from the African architectonic construction of the power couple (from a private collection) confronting visitors in the introductory gallery to the European Cubists’ deconstruction that objects like these helped to inspire.
Here are two views:
ALL PHOTOS BY LEE ROSENBAUM
The show’s exploration of Senufo art’s historic reception in the U.S. carries into the second gallery, which reassembles selections from the first show of such works in the U.S.—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. (As I mention in my review, the art that has come to be known as “Senufo” is from the three-corner region of Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso.)
Below is the most striking ensemble in Cleveland’s recreated display from that landmark show. On the left is the female figure (from a private collection) adorned with red abrus seeds and white cowrie shells that Goldwater had described as one of the finest examples not just of Senufo art but of all African sculpture.
In the middle is a similar (less graceful) piece from the Dallas Museum of Art; at the right is a very familiar (to me) hornbill, with its phallic beak touching its pregnant belly—usually a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum’s African art collection, bequeathed to that museum by Nelson Rockefeller:
Below are images of other objects mentioned in my piece (with my related WSJ commentary in italics):
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….
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.
Described in the exhibition as major “patrons of the arts,” these [poro] 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.
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.
[As in aside: The Cleveland Museum’s director, William Griswold, told me these were this favorite pieces in the show.]
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.
If the show whets your appetite for more, head upstairs to Cleveland’s own African art holdings, among which I immediately recognized as Senufo this piece, which closely resembles the mask that the WSJ chose to illustrate my article:
Its label says that this wood carving was “intended to impress and terrify” and its “fearsome aesthetic alludes to the mask’s power as an anti-sorcery device.”
You don’t have to believe in sorcery to appreciate its aesthetic and feel its power.