Senufo peoples; Côte d'Ivoire
Wood, oil patina; H. 21 1/4 in. (54 cm)
Gift of Lawrence Gussman, 1981 (1981.397)
This impressive representation depicts a mother nursing an infant. The sculpture is used to honor women and their maternal role in ceremonies and festivals of the tyekpa society, a social association among the Senufo peoples. The delicate infant strains at his mother's breast intently focused on its vital nourishment, while his mother remains stoic, steadying the baby in her left arm. The head of the mother is rendered in a rather expressionistic fashion, with pronounced mouth, large eyes, and crestlike coiffure. Her slit eyes suggest a sense of introspection and serenity as she fulfills her maternal obligations. The mother's face is further adorned with fine linear incising on the temples and cheeks, marks that are analogous to those made on Senufo women after having reached puberty. The surface of the figure is finished in a lustrous sticky patina, indicating the frequent application of oils as spiritual libations, but also to preserve the piece.
The tyekpa association functions in Senufo culture primarily as a funerary society. This sculpture is but one element of complex funerary celebrations that also include music, song, and dance. These elements come together to pay homage to and honor the memory of an elder tyekpa "mother." During the ceremonies, tyekpa members dance with various figurative sculptures such as this mother-child pairing raised high above their head. Due to its prominent visual display in the funerary proceedings, tyekpa figurative sculptures are rather large, some measuring three to four feet in height; this piece is nearly two feet tall.
The Senufo peoples form a complex network comprising more than thirty subgroups with many local variations of language and custom. They occupy a large area of West Africa that spans the national boundaries of Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Senufo society is patriarchal; inheritance, however, is traced through the matrilineal line. Consequently, the primacy placed on women and their essential maternal role is often reflected in Senufo artistic traditions like this sculpture. The tyekpa association is part of a larger social organization among the Senufo known as Sandogo. Membership in Sandogo is limited to female members of the Senufo community. Senufo life revolves around the Sandogo society and its counterpart, the all-male Poro society. These institutions cut across kinship lines and household ties, creating a social cohesiveness that extends throughout the community.