The Senufo tribe live in the northern region of the Ivory Coast, southern region of Mali, and southwestern region of Burkina Faso. The Senufo artistic traditions center around a belief that there is a continuity of life between those who are living and those that have passed on to the realm of the ancestors. In addition, they believe in various bush spirits and the evil machinations of sorcerers, especially witches. Their art forms included masks, figures, display objects, jewelry, clothing, architectural sculpture, and decoration. These art forms serve as either visual manifestations of the ancestors and bush spirits, or as magical emblems of power manipulated to protect one against evil.
Among the Senufo, wooden masks and figures play a crucial role in men’s and women’s secret societies, known respectively as Poro and Snadogo. Small, feminine-looking face masks are worn by Poro initiates at funeral celebrations for men and women. They are distinguished by the delicate oval face, smooth curved forehead, and geometric projections on either side of the face, the leg-like forms at the base of the face reflect a traditional hairstyle for Senufo women.
Although decorative in appearance, added elements such as feathers may have enhanced the mask’s power to combat negative forces in the community. In their association with nature and the bush, they stand in marked contrast to the mask’s carefully polished visage, embellished with raised scarification patters whose texture are repeated on the projections framing the face. This combination of aggressive and refined qualities may refer to the interdependence of Senufo men and women in ensuring spiritual and social equanimity.
Additionally, the female image in Senufo art is viewed as a symbol of fertility and as a representation of the primordial mother. Although in sculpture the female figure is often combined with other human and animal forms, the female image is an important element in the meaning of various types of objects found among the Senufo. The female figure stresses the controlled, civilized, fertile characteristics of life. An example of the importance of the depiction of the female image is found in the small seated figure on top of a staff of honor. The staff is presented to the winner of a farming-related competition among the young men of the various villages. The depiction relates the importance of the female within the agricultural practices of the Senufo.