Seated on a stool, a woman nursing twins on each oblong breast; her arms with their long forearms are raised and hold a bowl over her head; her stomach is marked with a cross-shaped scarification around the navel. These works associated with divination were worn during meetings of the female members of Sâdo’o, an exclusively female soothsayers organisation.
Seated nursing female
Côte d’Ivoire, North region
Wood, metal, patina
H 65cm; W 20cm; D 22cm
- Former Emil Storrer collection, Zurich, pre-1952
- Former Josef Mueller collection, Solothurn, Switzerland
- Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva
- Alain de Monbrison, Paris
- Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
- Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.19), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
This statue is a masterly expression of the universal theme of motherhood. The female figure breastfeeding her two newborn babies illustrates the important role of women in Ivorian arts. It is one of the most beautiful known objects from the range of works, evoking the complex ritual and spiritual world of the Senufo people, whose sculptures are now emblematic of sub-Saharan African arts and which are fundamentally tied to institutions or initiation societies that still form today’s basic pillars of social, political and religious life in many communities.
The Senufo people (Senufo deriving from the Manding words siene or syeen and fo, meaning ‘those who speak the siené or sénari language’) belong to the Voltaic or Gur language groups and are made up of around 50 sub-groups spread over a vast geographical area covering southern Mali, south-western Burkina Faso, northern Côte d’Ivoire and north-western Ghana.
The secret of the sacred bush: traditional Senufo institutions
Several institutions of social order or secret initiation societies occupy a fundamental place in the community life of many Senufo groups of people. They act as a unifying social cement, ensuring the group’s cohesion and the continued existence of ancestral values and traditions, mainly through use of masks, statues and a range of religious objects that play a considerable didactic and symbolic role in funerals and in major ritualistic ceremonies.
The best-known organisation, often considered the most important, is the secret society poro, reserved for men. Although some menopausal or pre-menopausal women can be part of it, this initiation society is essentially male and based on a system of hierarchical authority in age categories, initiating boys right from the age of around 7 and until the age of 28 or 30.
While poro has been especially studied among the Senufo people of northern Côte d’Ivoire, it is also present in Guinea (where it appeared in the 16th century) among the Toma and Kono people, and in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Traditionally1, initiations follow a septennial cycle (every seven2 or six-and-a-half3 years) and theoretically comprise three phases: a child phase (gbowra or kamuru), an adolescent phase (kwonro) and a final phase (tyologo). According to Gilbert Bochet, “the first two phases of the poro license social order. Generations are shaped, a type of man is modeled by the imposition of authoritarian and repetitive discipline and training which is obsessively insistent. The last phase is the mystical and ontological period of initiation itself, consisting of the creation of a new man and the reproduction of the village microcosm”4. The initiations are led by the elders and tutors of the previous generation and take place in an enclosure at the edge of the village that the uninitiated are strictly forbidden to enter. This secluded place for initiation is commonly referred to as the ‘sacred bush’ (Sinzang or Sinzanga). Its structure is a true microcosm with a symbolic and complex geography.
The other fundamental institution is that of sandogo, a powerful organisation of women soothsayers with especially important social, religious and judiciary5 roles. One of this secret society’s main roles was to control the lineage’s ritual purity, a task reserved for women in regard to the matrilineal6 transmission system of Senufo society. Although sandogo was, in theory, reserved mainly for women, some men could, very rarely, be part of it if the spirits had chosen them. Throughout their first years in sandogo, the initiate(s) would acquire knowledge through which they could master the art of divination, learning to communicate with the tugubele (or ndebele or madebele, depending on the groups and dialects): spirits in the scrubland (more broadly, the wilderness) responsible for certain ills in daily life, the origin of which could be determined by a sando (soothsayer; plural: sandobele).7 Mastering divination would also help identify unauthorised or extra-marital relations with men outside the lineage so that the group’s integrity could be preserved. According to Anita Glaze, “the sandogo society is considered one of the essential foundations of the world and Senufo village life, and the divination of the sando a practice that preserves life. […] In Senufo thought and oral tradition, woman has priority, and sandogo precedes poro in mythic time and cultural esteem. […] The Senufo principle of the primacy of "woman" embraces not only the biological primacy of the female, but also the redemptive role and saving power of sando diviners who serve as vital communicating links with the spiritual universe.”8
Bognan Fofana, diviner from the Sando society in Ouazomon, Côte d’Ivoire, consults the spirits with a person. That the wooden figures on his shrine were carved in about 1960 by Zonvagnan Koné from Kolia, 1977. © Karl-Heinz Krieg
Rites and roles: fromTyekpa to Sandogo
Tyekpa or female poro
According to some specialists, this type of seated maternity figure is part of the tyekpa secret society, a female branch of poro only found among the Fodonon Senufo people in south-west Korhogo and which had the same purposes as poro for men. In this context, these statues were notably carried by initiates in processions at funerals of members of tyekpa, also called ‘women’s poro’.
Although public events outside the sacred bush could take place9, the poro and tyekpa societies were fundamentally based on secrecy. This powerful secrecy would unite the initiates and form a “factor in social organization: it excludes those who are not within, and in this way segments social order, which facilitates its preservation.”10 Moreover, the number and internal organisation11 of the sacred bush vary depending on the communities to which they are tied and the size of the towns in which they are located. Indeed, although the number of three sacred bushes per village corresponds to the general standard that researchers have found, the amount can reach twenty in some towns. As Gilbert Bochet underlines, “the system of poro is not an immutable monument, an unchanged element from the past. Instead, it is a historic structure which varies ceaselessly in the face of ongoing events, conjunctions and accidents. Observation of the poro has captured only one moment of its existence. And that observation began at a moment when this part of Africa was experiencing profound and rapid acceleration of its history.”12
In this context, without specific research in the field, the purpose of certain works associated with divination practices or rituals taking place in the sacred bush is sometimes difficult to determine. The many anthropomorphic statues used as part of the poro rituals can generally be identified by their bigger size (roughly between 90 and 130cm)13 whereas the smallest statues (between 20 and 50cm)14 referred to under the generic term túgubèlè (also the name for the scrubland spirits) are associated with divinatory practices. According to Anita Glaze, “in terms of scale and quantity, sculpture of the sando diviners’ kits are less dramatic and public than that of the men’s poro society, in keeping with the small intimate space of the consultation chamber and the relationship of diviner and client.”15
A role in divinatory practices
According to several theories, this maternity figure also played a major role in anti-witchcraft rites and divinatory practices that are still very important in daily life in many African countries, especially Côte d’Ivoire. The detail of the antelope horn sculpted at the bottom of the bowl, evoking those used to carry ‘medicines’ or substances considered magic, would support this theory.
Its deep, composite sheen, revealing the many thick ointments of shea butter, white clay and red ochre16 attest to its very long, recurring use in rituals. As Anita Glaze points out, “the painting of female figures with heavy coats of ritual white acts as a sign od magical power and evokes the supernatural resources of women as defensive agents against sorcery.”17 A stylistic similarity with another statue carrying a bowl associated with divination, and not with tyekpa because of the small bag she is carrying across the shoulder, would support this theory on a divinatory role. For Burkhard Gottschalk, these two statues could have been made by the same sculptor. Two groups or associations of specialist artisans produce mainly wood sculptures: the smiths (the fonombèlè) and the actual sculptors (the kulibèlè). According to Burkhard Gottschalk, works by the kulibèlè stand out for their more naturalistic craftsmanship compared to works by the fonombèlè. Anita Glaze, who also underlines the naturalistic approach in sculpting this maternity figure, sees, in the way the arms are crafted, an old style from the Korogho region. According to her, “the figure exhibits several stylistic traits of kulebele carving tradition (e.g. scarification patterns defined by rectilinear areas of crosshatching and anatomical detailing such as separate fingers. Moreover, the iconographic theme of the nursing mother points directly to the kulebele, who claim to have invented the motif.”18
Lastly, the headdress, made up of a plaited sagittal strip of hair running the length of the midline up to the top of the skull, includes two small outgrowths at the forehead and at the nape of the neck. This capillary arrangement depicts a stylised chameleon and refers to an origin myth: the five primordial animals in Senufo cosmogony (the chameleon, the python, the hornbill, the crocodile and the turtle)19, created by the supreme god Kulyotolo before the original couple who engendered the human race. Like the python, the chameleon, which is associated with wisdom and intelligence, is considered to be an important messenger, interceding with supernatural forces.20 Visual representations of it are especially present on yawiige accessories and objects forming part of soothsayers’ essential paraphernalia, and in small figurines or on brass rings portraying this animal.
The sâdo’o or sandogo
Based on several years of field research in the Senufo region, Till Förster and Suzan Elizabeth Gagliardi also associate this kind of bowl-carrying female statue with sâdo’o or sandogo. Like the poro and tyekpa societies, the sandogo society involved wooden sculptures, the most important of which was a seated female figure carrying a bowl21. Each sandogo member had a statue. These statues were bigger than the figures of the sandobele soothsayers. They would be around 60 centimetres tall22, which is the height of this maternity figure from the former Josef Mueller and Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection. The bowl she is carrying on her head might have contained shea butter, a product closely related to the female world and to the work of the women who produced it23. Once a year, usually in November or December, the sandogo society would organise a festival bringing together all its members. During this festival – off limits to men – statues would be taken out of their owners’ homes and placed in the middle of the courtyard of the organisation’s most eminent member, the oldest female soothsayer, during which songs celebrating the creation and advent of the sandogo society would be sung throughout the night.
A healer and representatives of the association of hunters pay tribute to the scrubland spirits, represented by the sculptures lined up before them. Korhogo, Côte d’Ivoire, november 2013.
Although access to the sandogo religious rituals was, in theory, reserved exclusively for women, some men – especially healer-soothsayers – were able to see or gain access to this type of seated statue as part of certain rituals. A photograph taken by Till Föster in November 2013 in Korhogo shows a soothsayer and members of an association of hunters paying tribute to the spirits of nature embodied in sculptures lined up in front of them, notably a larger bowl-carrying seated figure.
The image of the breastfeeding mother: a glorified body and symbol of fertility
The corpus of seated maternity figures breastfeeding one or several newborn babies has an especially important place in Senufo statuary.
Through the sensual power of the full-bodied, vigorous shapes enhanced by a dark, oily sheen, the sculptural craftsmanship would glorify the woman and mother, her beauty and the power that she draws from her body that sustains, fertilises and creates, guaranteeing the continued existence of the whole community.
This visual representation of the mother, in reference to the primacy of fertility at both an individual and collective level, also relates to concrete issues, those of “major endemic diseases, undernourishment, infant mortality, wars and slavery [particularly in allusion to the violence of Samori Touré’s campaigns24] and constant erosion of humans, leading to an obsessive fear of extinction of the group […] And the concern to combat this situation was responsible for a very high birth rate. These worries are demonstrated […] by the images of the mother breastfeeding her child […] and the procreative couple, which constitute a large part of Senufo statuary.”25
A body giving material form to cultural ideals of beauty is associated with a healthy, and therefore fertile, body. The womb, highlighted in the sculpture through the motion produced by the curve of the lower back, appears protected by the bodies of the two babies, whose almost architectural position forms an extension – even a completion – of the swollen bosom while evoking two hands around the abdomen (the mother’s hands being used to hold the bowl balanced).
The umbilical marks reproduced on this maternity figure, which allude to the scarification of women during initiation to tyekpa, are likewise steeped in highly symbolic meaning. This motif formed of several radiating ridges surrounding the navel (kunage) features in the centre of certain korugo sculpted doors. This pattern evokes the maternal navel and, according to Bohumil Holas, is the “conventional symbol of the village microcosm and the fertile household from where all life comes.”26 For Gilbert Bochet, these radiating motifs underline and allude more broadly to the woman’s womb “while symbolising the division of the world into a graph similar to those which, in the sacred bush, were painted on the rammed earth of the initiatory huts.”27
Milk of knowledge and the Ancient Mother
Beyond formal beauty, the image of the maternity figure evokes the Ancient Mother Ka’atyeleo or Katiolo, venerated by all ‘poro children’, the initiates often being compared to children or suckling infants, who, at each stage of the initiation cycle, are fed ‘milk of knowledge’ by Ka’atyeleo. As Herbert M. Cole has pointed out, the image of breastfeeding represents not just a basic biological need but a cultural construction, which, in the special initiatory context of poro, “involves a symbolic death and later a rebirth through Ancient Mother’s vagina. […] A later ceremony symbolises a ‘weaning’ from the Mother […]. For years during the initiation cycle the young men in training will say they are ‘at our mother’s work’”.28
Indeed, during the final poro phase, known as tyologo, the initiates have to – among multiple other endurance tests – crawl for many hours in a tunnel of muddy water symbolising the Ancient Mother’s vagina, before entering, via a narrow door, the gbodonon or ‘the mother’s granary’ located in the tyoka’a enclosure of the sacred bush. In this way, they re-enter the Mother’s vagina and die symbolically before being reborn in the world fully fledged. In the sacred bush where she lives, the Ancient Mother therefore “embodies a cluster of overt and covert ideas, just like the initiation over which she presides, during which she – though by male preceptors – imparts both practical and esoteric learning to novices, her children [...]. She is said to absorb these shapeless beings – male youths who have recently left their actual mothers – when as novices they first enter her compound; she redelivers them later as fully former humans, weaned at the end of the cycle […].”29 For Gilbert Bochet, “The age-grade class of the eldest, most filled with wisdom, the most advanced on the path of a certain control of relations with the supernatural, constitutes the best possible incarnation of the "Mother", that is, of the fragile and limited cosmic order that authorizes man’s existence.”30
A tyolo initiate making their way through the pond of muddy water that symbolises the Ancient Mother’s vagina. © G. Bochet./© D.R.
History of the work and its background
Emil Storrer collected this Senufo maternity figure at the start of the 1950s. Josef Mueller (or Müller)31 then acquired it from him in 1952. As one of the gems of his collection of African arts, it joined the collections of the Musée Barbier-Mueller upon his death (1977), the museum having been founded in the same year, in line with the wishes of his son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller and his daughter Monique Mueller.
In 1946, the Masa people’s sect led by Mpéni Dembellé, a traditionalist priest from the village of Wolo near San (today the Republic of Mali), spread, reaching, in 1949, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and northern Ghana.32 This iconoclastic, Muslim-influenced cult, also called ‘the horn sect’, mainly based its reputation and authority on eradicating all practices considered to be witchcraft, which destabilised local religions, especially in northern Côte d’Ivoire in the Senufo region and, as a result, the neglect of thousands of religious objects that were taken out of the sacred bush and abandoned. Some disappeared, whereas others were salvaged or sold to Europeans there to prevent them from being destroyed. A famous photograph taken by Father Clamens in 1951 in the sacred bush of Lataha shows several statues and other religious objects carefully lined up and ‘ready to be sold’33. According to Burkhard Gottschalk, based on Father Clamens’s theory, this place was used to store poro objects that risked being destroyed by the Masa people’s emissaries34. As Patrick Royer writes, “the Masa representatives in the Senufo region demanded that all religious objects that directly or indirectly involved sorcery (those with an aggressive dimension that was part of power) be thrown away. […] Many important ritual objects, including sculptures belonging to the poro initiatory society, were abandoned […] salvaged by colonial administrators, missionaries and art dealers, and ended up in museums in Europe and North America”35. Among those who collected these objects were the missionaries Gabriel Clamens (1907-1964) and Michel Convers (1919-2002), the colonial administrators Gilbert Bochet and the Swiss Emil Storrer (1917–1989), who, in the 1950s, brought back the most beautiful examples of Senufo statuary known today. Some helped boost the prestige of certain museum collections, especially those of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich and private collections like that of Josef Mueller.
Josef Mueller (1887–1977) was an art lover since his youth. This letter he wrote to a friend in 1911, when he was 24 years old, attests to his passion: “I have discovered my life’s aim, the pole towards which all my thoughts, my efforts, my feelings shall tend. And that star, which shines before my eyes, in the night of this ever-changing, troubled world, that lone, distant, and undisturbed star is Art.”36 In the same year, after a visit to Paris, he acquired his first work by Cézanne, Le jardinier Vallier, as part of the sale of the Henry Bernstein collection, bidding against Ambroise Vollard. Following this acquisition were works by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Renoir, Bonnard, Léger, Miró, Ernst and Kadinsky, discovered in 1914 in Chicago, as well as his collection of works by Swiss painters (especially by painter and friend Ferdinand Hodler and Cunot Amiet) to which he was particularly attached. Due to the impact of the economic crisis in the 1930s, he could not acquire as many paintings as in the 1920s. But far from giving up on his passion for the most original visual artworks, Josef Mueller started acquiring, almost frenetically, a range of antiques and non-European works, “showing childlike wonder before an axe made of polished stone, a spoon or hairpin made of ivory, a Japanese tea bowl, with simple, pure forms revealing all that is good in man: a taste for the harmonious.”37 Between 1938 and 1942, when he returned to live in Solothurn, his native town, African and Oceanian artworks piled up in the thousands in his studio on Boulevard Montparnasse, where he stored many purchases. His son-in-law, Jean Paul Barbier, in the preface to the catalogue for the exhibition Sculptures d’Afrique : Collection Barbier-Müller, which took place in 1978, explained how he built up his impressive collection of non-European works, thought to be the largest in the world: “[…] the most important objects were acquired over two main periods: first, from 1930 to 1942 in Paris, then when he returned to Switzerland, mainly from 1950 to 1955. In the first period, his dealers were mainly Parisians (our friend Charles Ratton, Vignier, Louis Carré, Ernest Ascher and Pierre Vérité). In the second period, his main suppler was Emil Storrer, as well as a broker from Basel who provided him with several objects which, since the start of the century, had belonged to a Swiss mission, like the large nailed fetish. […] Incessantly, and up to his last breath, popular fine artworks, statuettes or masks from Africa and Oceania, antique terracotta, bronze works and marble objects, and paintings continued to build up in his huge house. A few months before his death, he bought an Akan seat in Zurich, then a female caryatid, a superb fragment of a Luba-Hemba seat: he was going to celebrate his 90th birthday and pursued his "career as a collector" from the age of 20, since his first interest in Cézanne and his first visit to Ambroise Vollard in 1909…”.38
Book collector with a passion for the great poets of the 16th century, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller (1930–2016), was introduced to non-European arts by Josef Mueller in the 1950s during his engagement to Monique Mueller. He founded the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva and never stopped pursuing Josef Mueller’s ‘Star’, which became, for him, a quest for high standards, coupled with particularly specialist work on objects, carrying out in-depth field research himself. The many exhibitions and publications dedicated to the Barbier-Mueller collection relate – and still contribute – as much to scientific research as to the ardent collector of non-European art.
Selected bibliography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
BARBIER Jean Paul, PAUDRAT Jean-Louis, SAVARY Claude, Sculptures d’Afrique : Collection Barbier-Müller, Geneva, Collection Barbier-Müller, 1978.
BARBIER Jean Paul, Art of Côte d’Ivoire from the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, 1993, vol. I and II.
BARBIER Jean Paul, BARBIER-MUELLER Monique, CAPRINI Renato, et. al., De Cézanne à « l’art nègre ». Parcours d’un collectionneur, Geneva, Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1997.
BOCHET Gilbert, « A propos des fondements spirituels de la vie sociale des Sénoufo », in Bulletin de la Société royale belge d’anthropologie et de préhistoire 74, 1964.
BOUTIN Pierre, « Le poro système initiatique sénoufo » in Société des Missions Africaines, 2014.
BOUTIN Pierre, « Comment se constituent les collections : l’exemple sénoufo » in Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 10 | 2014, pp. 47-59.
CASTELLANO Olivier, Sénoufo, Paris, Galerie Olivier Castellano, 2014.
CLARKE Christa, African Art in the Barnes Foundation. The Triumph of L’Art nègre and the Harlem Renaissance, Skira; Rizzoli, 2015.
Cole, Herbert M., Maternity: Mothers and Children in the Arts of Africa, Brussels, Mercatorfonds, 2017.
CONVERS Michel, « L’Aventure de Massa en pays Sénoufo» in Primitifs, Sept-Oct 1991.
CONVERS Michel, «Une suite à l’aventure massa en pays Sénoufo» in Tribal Arts, spring1997.
COULIBALY Sinali, Le paysan senoufo, Abidjan ; Dakar, Les nouvelles éditions africaines, 1978.
DELAFOSSE Maurice, Le peuple Siéna ou Sénoufo. Éd. P. Geuthner, Paris, 1908-1909.
FALGAYRETTES-LEVEAU (Dir.), Femmes dans les arts d’Afrique, Paris, Musée Dapper, 2008.
FISCHER Eberhard et HOMBERGER Lorenz, Les Maîtres de la sculpture de Côte d’Ivoire, Paris, musée du quai Branly ; Skira, 2015.
FÖRSTER Till et HOMBERGER Lorenz, Die Kunst der Senufo: Museum Rietberg, Zürich, aus Schweizer Sammlungen. Zürich, Museum Rietberg, 1988.
GABORIT Aurélien, Bois sacré : initiation dans les forêts guinéennes, Issy-les-Moulineaux, Beaux arts éditions, 2014.
GAGLIARDI Susan Elizabeth, Senufo unbound. Dynamics of art and identity in west Africa, Milan, 5 Continents, 2015.
GLAZE Anita, « Woman Power and Art in a Senufo Village» in African Arts, vol. VIII, n° 3, 1975, pp. 24-29 et 64-68.
GLAZE Anita, « Senufo Ornament and Decorative Arts » in African Arts, vol. XII, n° 1, 1978, pp. 63-71.
GLAZE Anita, Art and Death in a Senufo village. (Kufulo/Fodonon region). Bloomington, Ind., s.n., 1978.
GOLDWATER Robert, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1964.
GOTTSCHALK Burkhard, GIRARD, Sénoufo, Massa et les statues du poro. Studienreihe «Africa incognita», éd. U. Gottschalk, Düsseldorf, 2002.
GOTTSCHALK Burkhard, L’art du Continent noir : Senoufo. Trésors inconnus des collections privées, Düsseldorf, Verlag U. Gottschalk, 2009.
HARTER Pierre, « Sénoufo » in Le Monde de l’Art Tribal, printemps 1995, n° 5, pp. 44-53.
HOLAS Bohumil. Les Sénoufo (y compris les Minianka), Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1957.
HOLAS Bohumil, The Image of the Mother in Ivory Coast Art, Abidjan, Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1975.
HOLAS Bohumil, L’art sacré Sénoufo, Abidjan, Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1978.
HOLAS Bohumil, « Fondements spirituels de la vie sociale sénoufo (région de Korhogo, Côte d’Ivoire) » in Journal de la Société des Africanistes, t. XXVI, fasc. 1-2, 1956, pp. 9-32.
JOUBERT Hélène (Dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016.
KNOPS Pierre, Les anciens Sénoufo. 1923-1935, Berg en Dal, Africa Museum, 1980.
KRIEG Karl-heinz et LOHSE Wulf, «Kunst und Religion bei den Gbato-Senufo, Elfenbeinküste » Hamburgisches Museum für Volkerkunde, 1981.
LA GAMMA Alissa, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of divination, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
OUATTARA Tiona Ferdinand, « Les femmes et les institutions initiatiques de formation de l’homme africain. Le cas des Sénoufo » in Sources orales et histoires. Mélanges offerts au Pr. Henriette R. Dagri-Diabaté, Abidjan, Editions du CERAP, 2012.
OUATTARA Tiona Ferdinand, La Mémoire senufo : bois sacré, éducation et chefferie, Paris, ARSAN, 1988.
Zemp, Hugo, Les Maîtres du balafon : fêtes funéraires, 2010 (Filmed: Côte d'Ivoire: Kanoroba, Nafoun, Siempurgo, Kodokaha, December 1998 and January 1999; DVD (80 mn), 17.47–19.47 min.