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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Senufo Arts and Poro Initiation in Northern Côte d’Ivoire

During the twentieth century, outside commentators defined poro (or ) as a universal age-grade initiation association common to all Senufo communities in West Africa. They also attributed much of the region’s artistic production to the institution. Based primarily on observations made in areas of northern Côte d’Ivoire, scholars, colonial administrators, and missionaries emphasized that Senufo boys from different lineages passed through a series of initiation stages before becoming respected elders in their communities. Accordingly, young initiates spent weeks and even months together in secluded sacred groves where they developed the survival skills and intellectual foundation to prepare them for adulthood. Senior poro members instructed initiates in the work of poro, also referred to as work for “Old Mother,” the female aspect of the supreme deity and protector of poro initiates. As a result of locally sponsored initiations, poro members forged strong connections to their communities that cut across lineage divisions. They learned how to meet social obligations, work with peers, and respect their elders. Despite its presumed uniform character and its close association with Senufo culture, poro and the arts linked to the association display striking formal and functional variation. Such artistic diversity presumably reinforced the unique identities and preferences of artists and communities, many of whose names have not followed works into museums and private collections.

Scholars have identified a range of masks and sculptures with links to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Senufo poro associations (1978.412.311; 1978.412.315; 1978.412.382; 1978.412.457; 1978.412.489; 1979.206.71; 1979.206.216). In some communities, poro initiates prohibited uninitiated men, women, and children from seeing their impressive arts, a regulation akin to ones West African power associations maintain. The works and performances connected to them offer unique expressions of artists’ and patrons’ commitments to goals that include the promotion of hard work, community relations, and reverence for the deceased.

Masks worn by poro initiates in similar ceremonies did not always look the same. During his stay in northern Côte d’Ivoire in the 1920s and early 1930s, the missionary Pierre Knops photographed young initiates wearing tall, rectangular, boardlike kworo headdresses painted with checkerboard patterns. Initiates wore kworo masks during a public performance on the eve of their entrance into the sacred grove. The rounded form and openwork design of the kworo headdress in the Metropolitan Museum differs from the headdresses Knops photographed (1978.412.457).

Mask production proliferated across the region defined by the present-day borders of Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso and crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries. Not all masks were owned by poro associations despite certain similarities in form. Artists from the region carved wooden helmet masks in a diverse range of compositions. Many examples combine features of animals as different as chameleons, birds, hyenas, and antelopes. They also display open mouths filled with menacing teeth (1978.412.311; 1979.206.71).

Smaller, more finely carved face masks from northern Côte d’Ivoire display prominent anthropomorphic features, and a glossy patina renders the masks more delicate (1978.412.489; 1979.206.216). Details carved on and around the delicate faces and materials added to them presumably for performance defy a single standard for the form. Face masks were not the exclusive domain of Senufo poro associations, although some poro members may have worn such face masks and raffia costumes to entertain at the end of funerary ceremonies or on other occasions. In the twentieth century, Dyula communities in parts of northern Côte d’Ivoire commissioned and performed with similar face masks.

Local artists, patrons, and audiences have identified and interpreted mask imagery linked to poro in numerous ways. The helmet masks and headdresses themselves defy any singular interpretation. Nevertheless, their striking, and at times menacing, presence on the heads of performers, who were also cloaked in full-body outfits, likely attracted attention at the ceremonies for deceased elders and other events where they appeared.

Scholars have also identified many large figurative sculptures with links to poro associations in northern Côte d’Ivoire (1978.412.315; 1978.412.382; 1979.206.193; 1979.206.194). Senior poro members trained in divination obtained sculptures for their altars. In some communities, poro associations acquired larger figures known as pombibele (sing. pombia), or “children of poro.” In the mid- to late twentieth century, communities displayed pombibele as static works of sculpture and animated them in performance. The figures sometimes stood on the ground during a ceremony for a deceased poro elder or larger funerary ceremonies dedicated to all the deceased elders in a community. On other occasions, poro initiates carried pombibele as they walked, tapping the large figures on the ground. Rarer sculptures include the much admired large birds, reproductions of which today fill West African tourist markets. By the time Senufo arts captured scholarly attention in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century, artists and patrons had already created a wealth of forms to assert diverse local identities.

Today not all Senufo communities in northern Côte d’Ivoire, southwestern Burkina Faso, and southeastern Mali support poro initiation associations, nor have they necessarily sponsored the institutions in the past. However, poro has historically been responsible for the transmission of histories, genealogies, and other knowledge and has contributed to diverse and dynamic artistic production in northern Côte d’Ivoire.