Reflection: 'Senufo,' at St. Louis Art Museum, shows the wellspring of modernism | St. Louis Public Radio

Reflection: 'Senufo,' at St. Louis Art Museum, shows the wellspring of modernism

Jul 5, 2015

“Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa,” an exhibit of extraordinary interest that opened recently at the St. Louis Art Museum, is the rare bird that flies between two branches with grace and a keen sense of intelligent direction.

One branch accommodates the academy, where research, learning and teaching are paramount, but that has, in the case of the art of Senufo, held fast for decades to the ideas the organizers of this show challenge as erroneous.

The other branch supports the rest of us, we the serious and the curious and, in this case, the tabula rasa public. One may know something about the art presented in this show, but the knowledge more than likely is general. I, for example, was clueless regarding its subject.

I say clueless, because there has been no organized major exhibition of this work since the early 1960s, when the modernist and African art historian Robert Goldwater was deep into studying Senufo art. Goldwater, who died in 1973, was the first director of the now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art in New York. He organized the last major Senufo exhibit to be shown in America at his museum in 1963.

Glimpses in the West

Many non-academics with a keen interest in the art of our time, however, may know an important fact about Senufo without realizing it. That’s because in 1907 Pablo Picasso, after laborious sketching and imagining, finished a painting so profoundly disturbing and so absolutely influential that it plowed a new channel in the swift and deep river of Western art. For good and for ill, the painting redirected art’s mighty course and the list of artists who responded to this art, and embraced its forms, is lengthy indeed.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, oil on canvas, 244 x 234 cm, Museum of Modern Art, NY
Credit Wikipedia

Picasso was the standard bearer. He called his picture “Le Brotel d’Avignon,” the Brothel of Avignon. It is held up to us as the wellspring of Cubism, and certainly Picasso’s painting had fundamentally generative power and was the talk of Paris’s subculture. As far as the general public, it didn’t exist, because it dwelled in privacy in Picasso’s residence and studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir for a decade, where it went underwent a sanitizing name change, provided by Picasso’s friend, the poet and critic Andre Salmon.

When finally exhibited, provoking the outrage of the many and the ecstasy of the few, it came to be known forever as “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” – the Ladies of Avignon, and in 1916 they made their debut in the Salon d’Antin organized by Salmon.

Those of us with art historical proclivities crave identifiable influences, and in late 19th and early 20th century there were no shortages of extraordinary examples begging for application in the worlds of the visual arts, music, literature, science, psychology and behavior and politics. Cutting its way through this jamboree of influences and inspirations like a scalpel, however, was Africa.

Europe looked to Africa with fascination, although it was a fascination all mixed up with a snooty scorn that we in the West have been afflicted with for what seems to be forever, affecting us to our detriment if not our damnation. The art of the myriad indigenous populations was relegated to the lesser status of ethnology and was exhibited in institutions such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris. The idea of this art moving to its own museum (such as the contemporary Musée de quai Branly in Paris, where the Trocadero collection now resides) or into holy-of-holies such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre was anathema.

Nevertheless, the Trocadero was one of the principal sources of influence on Picasso, even though he complained about how badly it smelled. And it was there he was stunned by the affective energy of a constellation of shapes and forms of art once dismissed as naïf or primitive, or as curiosities or, worse, as gimcracks.

Lessons of 'Senufo'

Racial and cultural prejudices were at the heart of this dismissive attitude. Thus – at this moment in our history in America, at a time when the race hatred has crawled out from under its rock to torment us once again – we are candidates for instruction if not for comeuppance. “Senufo Unbound” provides lessons regarding hubris, the ridiculous notion of American exceptionalism and a refusal to learn from the past.

Bird Figure, probably Cote d'Ivoire; wood, height 59 and five-eighths inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection. Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Credit Art Resource, New York @ Metropolitan Museum of Art

The visual, intellectual, geographical and historic milieu drawn upon by the organizers of this show is fascinating to explore but daunting in its complexity. Its organization was guided by a mission that is central to a 360-degree understanding of the works of art and the cultures that produced them.

That mission – described by William M. Griswold, director of the Cleveland Art Museum, which organized and first presented this show – aspires to put to rest the hermetic notion of “one tribe, one style” of works of Senufo work. It is his hope also to reveal through this examination that the stylistic and intentional aspects of the art of Senufo will not continue to be a metaphorical monolith but an art that “can be recognized in many other African regions, and the diversity of styles, genres and other art-historic terms is equally pervasive.” 

Senufo is used to describe a people speaking a common language, a population that participates in similar behaviors and rigorously secret initiation rituals – poro being the principal example -- in which works of art are integral. This people does not call itself Senufo but uses the name Senambele. Members live in a tricorn expanse of geography in West Africa that spreads over parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as a small Cuba-shaped area of Ghana on its border with Burkina Faso.

In the show, the work is undated and the names of artists are generally not known. One assumes that because time and identity are part of a continuous stream from an ancient source, specific dates or artists’ names would be difficult if not impossible to ascertain, and would in fact be irrelevant. The craving for such information is one more indication of the obsessive Western mind in overdrive. What could be a better antidote to this craving than a bold coalition of richness and integrity, qualities exhibited time after time after time in this exhibition at the Art Museum?

Spiritual experience

The show was curated by Constantine Petridis, the Cleveland Museum’s curator of African Art, and Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi, an assistant professor of art history at Emory. In their mission to bring forth the essential and affecting aesthetic and spiritual endowments of each individual work of art, rather than more shared and widespread stylistic and metaphorical relationships, they offer masterpieces to us. Visitors can expect experiences of genuine virtue, rare in a dumbed-down special-exhibitions world where the climax is reached in the gift shop.

Female figure, probably Mali; wood, cowrie shells, abrus seeds, latex. Height 35 and five-eighths inches. Private collection
Credit BAMW Photography

A show of African art may provide the rush of the exotic or the titillation of exaggerated manifestations of the human anatomy. Here, a person may well be drawn into a world that electrifies the mind and affects the spirit viscerally. This is a world that, on a most basic level, transforms a bobbin or a hand-held pulley from the utilitarian to the magical. The magic is magnified from there, on and on, mingled with rituals such as poro that prepare boys (and to a lesser degree, girls) for full participation in the life of the society in which they live. The boldest dramatic works are formidable, the better to confront evils and enemies, and to dramatize the potency of warriors. And on the domestic front, Senufo sculptures celebrate the mystical communion of mothers and babies.

Denizens of the natural world are exalted too – horses, birds such as the hornbill, bison, snakes and lizards. Masks and headdresses are astonishing in their variety and beauty – and their power is palpable. The sleek, refined attenuations and manipulations of the human form are thrilling, perhaps suggesting the value of physical and spiritual reaching. So too is the tour de force of physical strength portrayed in the heavier, more earthbound sculptured figures. In this aesthetic and spiritual universe, existence flows back and forth from the workaday to the sublime, from light to dark, heavy to delicate, earthbound to airborne, ominous to peaceful.

Mask for the Do Society, probably 19th century. Ligbi. Wood, paint, palm oil and henna. 11 and seven-eighths by 6 by 3 and seven-eighths inches. St. Louis Art Museum. Funds given by Howard F. Baer in honor of his wife, Isabel A. Baer
Credit Provided by the St. Louis Art Museum

The work of these artists reveals a glorious and carefully chosen repertory of shapes and forms and demonstrates the virtuosic employment of materials and the inculcation of spiritual devotion. Dismissing completely the notion of the inanimate, each work from bobbin to ceremonial headdress, owns a soul.

On reflection, a transporting curiosity takes us back to the issue of influences, specifically to 1907 and Picasso’s prostitutes, who, in the painting, positioned by him from left to right, take us from generally recognizable human forms and faces into the world of pictorial magic created so ferociously and consistently by the genius Picasso.

Perhaps because he learned so much from the art of the people we call the Senufo, we realize we have so much to learn too, lessons that reward and are indeed transcendent. But although we can say Picasso delivered modernism from the Trocadero to his experiments leading up to the realization of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” from this exhibition we learn that modernism was conceived not in Montmartre but in the fertile womb of the traditional art of West Africa.