Senufo Sculpture from West Africa: an influential exhibition at The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1963

  • Face Mask (Kpeliyee)
  • Male Poro Figure (Pombia)
  • Bird (Sejen)
  • Figurine
  • Janus Helmet Mask (Wanyugo)
  • Helmet Mask (Kponyugo)
  • Face Mask (Kpeliyee)


In 1978 and 1979, the collection at the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum, where it became the latter’s foundation for its African art holdings. Nelson A. Rockefeller had established the MPA in 1954 in association with René d’Harnoncourt, then director of the Museum of Modern Art. The two men appointed the art historian Robert Goldwater as director of the MPA in 1957, in part due to Goldwater’s groundbreaking doctoral studies some twenty years earlier that centered on the influence of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on modern European artists. Led by Goldwater’s curatorial vision, the MPA sponsored the landmark exhibition Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. In conjunction with the show, the museum also published a monograph on Senufo art that bears the same title. The MPA’s approach to Senufo art has had an enduring impact on the study and display of African art.

Senufo Sculpture from West Africa and the 1960 show at the MPA that preceded it, Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan, focused on art produced within discrete regional traditions. The museum highlighted aesthetic qualities of work selected for both exhibitions along with an investigation into local contexts of production and use. Until then, fine arts institutions and galleries in Europe and the United States had commonly exhibited works from all over Africa together and paid little attention to understanding how the artists and patrons responsible for the arts conceived of and used them. The Senufo and Bamana art exhibitions at the MPA constituted a departure from previous shows and launched a new direction for the reception of African art in the United States and Europe.

Goldwater described “the Senufo people” as agriculturalists whose history of migration brought them into the region around the borders of the countries then known as Ivory Coast, Mali, and Upper Volta. He identified the Baule, Guro, Dan, N’gere, Bobo, and Bambara (or Bamana) as influential neighbors of the Senufo who in various ways contributed to stylistic differences in Senufo art. However, today categories such as “Senufo” and “Bamana” seem less distinct than they did in the mid-twentieth century.

The term Senufo commonly refers to a linguistic group comprised of about thirty related dialects within the larger Gur language family. Many Senufo speakers live, work, and interact with people who use many other languages in the towns and cities in a region located between the northern reaches of West Africa’s coastal forests and the southern reach of the Sahara desert. Many people in rural West African Senufo-speaking communities continue to pursue agricultural work. They cultivate a wide variety of crops, including cotton and cash crops for the international market. They also actively support the arts, including a wealth of masquerade art and figurative sculpture. Other Senufo speakers serve as active promoters of Senufo arts and culture in conjunction with their careers as politicians, civil servants, religious clergy, and academics in their home countries and abroad.

Goldwater did not conduct field research in West Africa, but he examined a number of secondary sources and consulted with specialists who had traveled to the region in order to describe the contexts for Senufo arts. Key contributors to Goldwater’s analysis of Senufo arts included scholars, missionaries, government officials, and art dealers. Based upon the different approaches of his European colleagues knowledgeable about Senufo arts, Goldwater identified the (or poro) association as “the most important socio-religious institution” and a great patron for the arts in Senufo communities. He also recognized divination as an important impetus for Senufo artistic production.

The array of objects the MPA featured in the 1963 exhibition reflects the wide availability of Senufo art in Europe and America in the mid-twentieth century. The Swiss art dealer and field collector Emil Storrer acquired several examples of stunning Senufo sculpture now in the Metropolitan’s collection that appeared in the exhibition (1978.412.311; 1978.412.315). Storrer had traveled through northern Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1950s, during which time he retrieved many objects that people had discarded and even sought to destroy in the wake of a widespread iconoclastic movement.

As a result of the diversity of Senufo art in the United States and Europe at the time, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa brought together many similar pieces of sculpture from the MPA and collections elsewhere to make audiences aware of the broad range of art produced within a single region. For example, the museum included many face masks carved in wood and cast in metal, including a wooden kpeliye’e face mask by the artist Nadono Soro. Albert Maesen, the first art historian to conduct extended fieldwork in Senufo communities of northern Côte d’Ivoire and later a curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, had collected the mask and information about it in 1939. Soro’s creation thus provided one point of comparison for many of the other kpeliye’e masks shown in the exhibition and publication, including an example at the Metropolitan (1978.412.489). (Maesen brought Soro’s face mask back to Belgium, where it later entered the collections at Tervuren [RG 74.61.3].) Likewise, a face mask that the French field collector F.-H. Lem acquired sometime before 1948 in the Folona region of southern Mali offered a different example for the treatment of finely carved face masks in Senufo-speaking communities of West Africa (in 1949, the face mask Lem collected was in Helena Rubinstein’s collection). A similar face mask is in the Metropolitan’s collection (1978.412.365). Also, the exhibition presented large wooden figurative sculptures, more intimate-scaled metalwork created in abstract human and animal forms, and larger helmet masks distinguished by their composite animal imagery (1978.412.382; 1979.206.41; 1979.206.71). The MPA highlighted the masterful work of different artists who handled diverse media in many ways to create a compelling variety of visual forms. Unfortunately, many of the artists’ names did not circulate with their work.

The exhibition of Senufo art at the MPA resulted from a critical effort to combine a stunning display of art from a single region with field-based research then available. The museum’s monographic approach remained highly influential in the study and display of African art throughout the twentieth century. The selection of works featured in Senufo Sculpture from West Africa that remain in the Metropolitan’s holdings shed light on histories of artistic production in West Africa. The works have also played a role in pioneering appreciation in the United States and Europe for a major artistic center.

Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 2010


Gagliardi, Susan Elizabeth. “Senufo Sculpture from West Africa: an influential exhibition at The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1963.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (January 2010)

Further Reading

Goldwater, Robert. Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1960.

Goldwater, Robert. Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1964.

Goldwater, Robert. Sculpture from Three African Tribes: Senufo, Baga, Dogon.. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1959.

Holas, Bohumil. Les Sénoufo (y compris les Minianka). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1957.

Knops, Pierre. Les anciens Sénufo: 1923–1935. Berg en Dal: Afrika Museum, 1980.

Lem, F.-H. Sudanese Sculpture. Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949.

Veirman, Anja. "'Here a boy always becomes a sculptor, like his father': Albert Maesen and the Study of the Art of the Senufo." In Frans M. Olbrechts, 1899–1958: In Search of Art in Africa, edited by Constantine Petridis, pp. 268–87. Antwerp: Ethnographic Museum, 2001.