Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa opens in Cleveland February 22nd

Senufo Begins in Cleveland

Some of the most beloved artistic creations of sub-Saharan Africa, masks, figures, and decorative art labeled as Senufo, have been the subject of numerous studies by African, American, and European scholars since the 1930s. The interest in sculpture identified as Senufo was largely stimulated by its discovery by the artistic avant-garde in the early twentieth century. Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger were among those to find inspiration in the oeuvre of their West African counterparts.

Double face mask. Unidentified artist. Wood; h. 32 cm. Collection Laura and James J. Ross. Photo: John Bigelow Taylor

Through a stunning selection of objects in diverse styles and mediums, the exhibition introduces visitors to the poro and sandogo societies, the primary settings for the production and use of works of art in the Senufo-speaking region of northern Côte d'Ivoire. However, drawing on recent research in Mali and Burkina Faso, the exhibition also includes sculptures not usually attributed to Senufo-speaking artists or patrons, thus shattering the boundaries of the corpus typically identified as Senufo.

Pair of Male and Female Figures. Unidentified artist. Wood; H. 115 and 97 cm. Private Collection, Courtesy of McClain Gallery. Image © Sotheby's

Featuring nearly 160 loans from museums and private collections in Europe, Canada, and the United States, Senufo: Art and Identities in West Africa examines the shifting meanings of the term Senufo since the late nineteenth century and investigates assumptions underlying the labeling of art as Senufo. Revealing the shortcomings of labels tied to limited cultural or ethnic groups, the exhibition encourages a closer look at individual objects and their particular histories.


Organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Senufo: Art and Identities in West Africa will subsequently travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France.