Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Divination and Senufo Sculpture in West Africa

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Across West Africa, people from rural and urban communities consult diviners about medical, psychological, professional, or other personal challenges. Such specialists typically undertake extensive training that prepares them to understand complex problems in people's lives, prescribe medicinal remedies, and offer other suggestions. Successful diviners at once master knowledge of the landscape, develop abilities to communicate with the spiritual world, and create aesthetically rich environments as settings for consultations. Sculptures and altars used in divination reflect practitioners' efforts to harness natural resources and engage spiritual intermediaries. Divination thus constitutes an important source of patronage for the region's artists.


Diviners invest in the arts to foster personal relationships with the spirit world and enhance communication between nature spirits and humans.

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Divinatory spirits and sculptures created for them are often referred to as ndebele, madebele, and tugubele (sing.: ndeo, madeo, and tugu) in several Senufo dialects used in northern Côte d'Ivoire, southeastern Mali, and southwestern Burkina Faso. People commonly link divinatory spirits with nature, namely water, trees, and uncultivated landscapes beyond town and city limits. They conceive of nature spirits as anthropomorphic beings with feet that point backwards, often invisible to the human eye. According to these beliefs, nature spirits may assist people to maintain good health, achieve success, and develop satisfactory relationships with friends and family. Spirits can also be held accountable for people's illness or hardship, however, and are regarded with ambivalence. Hunters, farmers, and others who enter the wilderness or who otherwise come into contact with trees and natural water sources consider risks taken when they approach places where nature spirits are believed to reside. They rely on preemptive measures designed to appease spirits who may be offended when people track game, till the land, draw water, or otherwise invade spirit domains. Diviners similarly commission sculptures to appeal to capricious spirits and seek their goodwill. The diversity of divinatory arts attests to diviners' perceptions of nature spirits' unique preferences and artists' interpretations of them.


Many of the most distinguished diviners in Senufo communities in northern Côte d'Ivoire have belonged to the sando association. Throughout the mid- to late twentieth century, sando membership typically passed through the mother's line. Only a select few sando members studied divination. Most sando diviners were women, although occasionally men entered the practice. Many new sando diviners first acquired miniature metal sculptures in the form of figurative twins (1978.412.496; 1978.412.497; 1979.206.41). Smaller cast brass figurines are more portable than larger wooden sculptures and far less costly, thus they were easier for diviners to procure early in their careers. Practitioners who advanced eventually sought more finely carved wooden sculptures for their consultation rooms (1979.206.193; 1979.206.194).


Senufo communities also support non-sando diviners, some of them senior members of the poro initiation association. They also rely on the arts to identify problems in clients' lives and provide prescriptions. While sando diviners often sought smaller spirit sculptures convenient to carry with them, other diviners apparently commissioned larger figurative sculptures. For example, a pair of ndebele figures in the Metropolitan's collection probably stood on an altar maintained by poro elders (1979.206.193; 1979.206.194).


Women and men who work as diviners in Senufo communities and elsewhere in West Africa employ a range of arts and techniques. Many diviners receive clients in small, intimate consultation rooms. Wooden and metal sculptures, pottery, textiles, and earthen bas-reliefs often dominate the windowless rooms, lit only by the sunlight that enters through the open doorframe. In one form of divination common in many Senufo communities, the diviner sits either next to or opposite the client and holds the client's hand. The diviner first calls for the nature spirits' attention. The diviner then presents the spirits with a series of questions in order to determine the reason for the client's visit. To identify the source of the client's concerns, the diviner holds one of the client's hands and interprets the movements of the diviner's and client's hands as they move together, sometimes slapping against the diviner's leg. The diviner continues the process to determine a suitable course of action for the client. The diviner may additionally use musical instruments, sculptured figurines, or found objects to assess a client's concerns. The caliber of the arts used in a diviner's practice announces competence and accomplishment. Diviners who earn renown and attract clients from distant locales often have the means to commission more ambitious works.


At the conclusion of a consultation, the client receives medicinal prescriptions or detailed instructions concerning appropriate offerings. The diviner may also advise the client to obtain a specific body adornment or figurative sculpture from an artist. For example, diviners often recommend rings, pendants, bracelets, or anklets featuring chameleons and other animals considered intermediaries between human and spirit realms (1978.412.498; 1986.478.29). Referred to as yawiige in some Senufo languages, the ornaments are believed to help appease spirits according to their wishes as revealed through divination. Diviners themselves acquire similar ornaments from artists in the region to manage their own relationships with nature spirits.


Divination underlies the creation of many forms of artistic expression in Senufo and other communities across West Africa. Diviners invest in the arts to foster personal relationships with the spirit world and enhance communication between nature spirits and humans. They and their clients seek works in wood, metal, and other media from artists in order to gain insight into the causes of disruptions in their lives and move beyond them.

Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi
Chester Dale Fellow 2008–2009, Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art