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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Senufo Sculpture from West Africa: An Influential Exhibition at the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1963

When the collection of the now-closed Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum in 1978 and 1979, it became the foundation for the Met’s African art holdings. Prior to that, it helped shape several pioneering exhibitions, including the MPA’s 1963 show Senufo Sculpture from West Africa.

Nelson A. Rockefeller established the MPA in 1954 in association with René d’Harnoncourt, then director of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1957, the two men appointed art historian Robert Goldwater as director of the MPA, in part due to his early work on the impact of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on modern European artists. In a book on the subject, Goldwater juxtaposed American photographer Walker Evans’s 1935 print of a sculpture by an unnamed African artist with Pablo Picasso’s Nude of 1907. On the basis of form, Goldwater regarded the African sculpture as an example of Senufo art. His interest in African art, and Senufo art more specifically, led him to organize the influential Senufo sculpture exhibition when he was director of the MPA. Through the exhibition and its companion publication, Goldwater established enduring parameters of the Senufo style.

Goldwater recognized the term Senufo as the name of a cultural and ethnic group rooted in a mythic past. However, the term began to appear in print in the late nineteenth century, when French observers designated as Senufo people who did not necessarily use the term to identify themselves. Art collectors, dealers, connoisseurs, and scholars in Europe and North America began labeling certain sculpture as Senufo in the early twentieth century as they sought ways to classify and understand arts from Africa that increasingly captured their attention.

The term Senufo also designates a family of languages within the larger Gur language family. Senufo languages are prevalent in communities located in the three-corner region, an area marked by the convergence of the present-day borders of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. Senufo languages also appear in communities in a small area of western Ghana. Other languages, including some outside the larger Gur language family, are common in this linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse three-corner region.

In the mid-twentieth century, an iconoclastic movement spread across and beyond the three-corner region, and a variety of sculptures entered European and American collections as examples of Senufo art. Swiss art dealer Emil Storrer traveled to Côte d’Ivoire at the time and acquired some of the stunning sculptures (1978.412.311; 1978.412.315) now in the Metropolitan’s collection. Also likely in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1950s, French Catholic missionaries Gabriel Clamens and Michel Convers captured on black-and-white film a distinctive face mask (1978.412.489). The photograph indicates losses to the mask that have since been repaired. Goldwater included objects that Storrer collected and the Catholic missionaries photographed in the MPA’s Senufo exhibition and accompanying publication.

Senufo Sculpture from West Africa opened to the public in New York on February 20, 1963. After closing in New York in May of that year, the show traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Like its 1960 precursor at the MPA, Antelopes and Queens: Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan, the exhibition focused on a body of work identified with a single cultural or ethnic group.

In 1964, the MPA published a monograph by Goldwater bearing the same title as the exhibition. Goldwater’s essay in the book describes a cultural context for the production and use of arts identified as Senufo, and photographs of objects published in the book encourage comparative study of sculptures of a particular type.

The exhibition featured nearly 130 objects, from tall wooden figurative sculptures and large helmet masks to smaller face masks and more intimately scaled metalwork (1978.412.382; 1979.206.41; 1979.206.71). Designed by MPA curator Douglas Newton, the exhibition invited comparison of objects within a type. Charles Uht’s photographs of the installation show groupings of similar objects. For example, figurative sculptures stand on pedestals in one gallery, and face masks line the wall of another gallery.

A face mask that French field collector F.-H. Lem acquired sometime before 1948 in the Folona region of southern Mali offered a different example for the treatment of finely carved face masks. By 1949, the face mask Lem collected was in Helena Rubinstein’s collection, and the Metropolitan’s collection now includes a similar sculpture (1978.412.365). Of the face masks featured in the exhibition and companion publication, another mask is notable for its attribution to the artist Nadono Soro. The Belgian scholar Albert Maesen collected the mask and information about it when he conducted fieldwork in northern Côte d’Ivoire in 1938–39. Soro’s creation provided another point of comparison for many of the other face masks shown in the exhibition, including an example now at the Metropolitan (1978.412.489).

Maesen brought Soro’s face mask back to Belgium, where it later entered the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (RG 74.61.3). Maesen was one of the first art historians to write a doctoral dissertation based on extended fieldwork in West Africa and the first art historian to study in depth arts labeled as Senufo. He later served as a curator at the museum in Tervuren.

By contrast, Goldwater never traveled to West Africa. In order to write an essay for the exhibition book, he relied on personal communication with and publications of observers including scholars, missionaries, government officials, and art dealers who had spent at least some time in the three-corner region. One source he consulted was Maesen’s 1946 dissertation. Goldwater also collected drawings and descriptions of masquerades from French colonial administrator Gilbert Bochet. Several of Bochet’s drawings appear in Goldwater’s book.

Based on the information he gathered, Goldwater recognized (or poro) as “the most important socio-religious institution” and great patron of the arts in communities identified as Senufo. He also described divination as an important stimulus for artistic production. In the second half of the twentieth century, American and European scholars began studying in greater detail the importance of poro organizations and divination to arts of the three-corner region.

When he organized the exhibition Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, Goldwater drew on the model he developed for the MPA’s Antelopes and Queens. The two shows and their conceptual framework influenced the display and study of African art for decades. Prior to the MPA’s exhibitions, European and American fine arts institutions and galleries commonly exhibited together works from all over Africa. They devoted little attention to understanding how artists and patrons responsible for the works conceived of or used them. The MPA’s two shows thus constituted a departure from previous exhibitions of African art. Combined with their respective publications, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa and its precursor set a precedent for the exhibition and study of African art that prevailed for decades.