“It’s important to see every object is an individual creation,” said Constantine Petridis, who curated “Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa” for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In the exhibit – which opened at The St. Louis Art Museum on Sunday and continues through September 27 – masks, figures and other artifacts tell the story of African people who proved to be unforgettable, even in their anonymity.

Hardly any of the 170 works borrowed from nearly 60 public and private collections in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America have an individual artist attributed to them – or even a particular country of origin.
But these carvings, with all of their vibrancy and intricate detail, prove bigger than even the “Senufo” label – which was applied to visual art from Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso, a trio of West African countries colonized by the French in the late 1880s.

This is the Pair of Male and Female Figures, wood. Unidentified Artist. Private Collection, courtesy of the McClain Gallery in Houston. The new Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit 'Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa' gathers more than 150 African sculptures from the past 200 years in an effort to redefine the cultural identity of the Senufo people in light of new scholarship about previous misunderstandings dating to Western colonization. (Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer)

This is the Pair of Male and Female Figures, wood. Unidentified Artist. Private Collection, courtesy of the McClain Gallery in Houston. The new Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit ‘Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa’ gathers more than 150 African sculptures from the past 200 years in an effort to redefine the cultural identity of the Senufo people in light of new scholarship about previous misunderstandings dating to Western colonization. (Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer)

“Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa” is the first presentation of Senufo Art in the United States since New York City’s now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art presented Robert Goldwater’s “Senufo Sculpture from West Africa” in 1963.

It is the first African art exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) in more than 15 years. Nichole Bridges, SLAM’s associate curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, curated the St. Louis presentation of the exhibit. Bridges will prevent a gallery talk entitled “Senufo and Beyond in the Permanent Collection” at 11 a.m. August 20 and 6 p.m. August 21.
Through the exhibit’s three sections – “Seeing Senufo in the First Half of the 20th Century,” “Forms in Context” and “Beyond Senufo” – guests will become acclimated to the origins of Senufo as a subcategory of African culture defined by those who colonized the region.

The exhibit shows audiences that modern artistic icons like Pablo Picasso found inspiration in West African art at a time when Africans were often seen as subhuman. “Artistic vanguards looked at African art and were fascinated by it,” said Petridis, who is curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
But this was not art made in the studio for the gallery or museum; it was often part of functional culture, made with ritual intention and purpose. In “Forms in Context,” guests see Senufo art created for the Poro – a male initiation ceremony. Within the multifaceted rituals, young men learn how to build strong relationships among themselves and the community as a whole.

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