By Heinrich Schweizer
The Kunin Senufo Female Statue, created by a Senufo artist from Ivory Coast in the 19th or early 20th century, is one of the most iconic African sculptures. With its minimalist lines it visualizes the concept of timeless female beauty. One of the greatest achievements of man in the sculptural representation of the human form, the Kunin statue transcends the corpus of African art and is best described as a masterpiece of world art. Before Myron Kunin, the Senufo Female Statue belonged to some of the greatest collectors of African art of the 20th century, including the psychiatrist and influential author Werner Muensterberger, the curator and theorist William Rubin, and the artist Armand Arman.
Over the last sixty years, the Senufo Female Statue has been exhibited in many of the most important museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, The National Museum of African Art in Washington, and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. Published countless times, including in the most important reference books on African art, the Kunin Senufo Female Statue is one of the most widely recognized works of African art.
In her discussion of the cultural context of Senufo statuary at the occasion of the exhibition Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, LaGamma (2002: 30 et seq.) explains: "According to the Senufo account of genesis, Kolotyolo, the creator, gave life to the first man and woman, who became the first human couple. The woman conceived and gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. [...] The ideal of human male-female duality [...] also informs Senufo conceptions of the divine, especially the bipartite deity that is central to Senufo religious belief. Kolotyolo, the male aspect of divinity responsible for creation and 'bringing us forth,' is a benevolent but relatively remote presence who is balanced by a more accessible female dimension known as Katyeleeo, or Ancient Mother. She is a divine protectress responsive to the needs of the community. Within Senufo society, an optimal relationship with this divinity and the ancestors is assured through Poro, an initiation-based organization whose teachings also prepare members for responsible and enlightened leadership. Participation in Poro is universal among Senufo males, who safeguard their community's social and political welfare by making frequent sacrifices to the ancestors - conceived as past children of Ancient Mother - so that they may intercede on behalf of her current, living children.
"A Senufo village is composed of a series of residential settlements known as katiolo. In a large village, each has its own Poro society, set of initiates, and sacred sanctuary, or sinzanga, situated in a dense grove of trees beside the village. [...] Although Poro is essentially a male institution, the most important ancestor invoked is the woman who was the head of the sinzanga's founding matrilineage. Anita Glaze suggests that this emphasis on female ancestral origins is reflected in Poro-sculptural couples, the majority of which interpret the female as the dominant of the two figures. Such 'ancestral couples' are the primary sculptural form used by Poro and are displayed on the occasion of a distinguished member's funeral. A preoccupation with ancestral origins is articulated visually in [the figures] through the treatment of the navels. [A] protruding, herniated navel […] evokes the remnant of the umbilical cord. Glaze notes that this feature serves as a reminder of the matrilineage that reaches back to Ancient Mother. A variation on this idea is expressed through the highly abstract motif that [often, as the case in the Kunin statue] accents the female figure's navel. It consists of four sets of three or four parallel lines that radiate horizontally and vertically out from the navel at its center. Known as kunoodyaadye, which translates as 'navel of mother' or 'mother of twins,' this design is used to ornament the body of Senufo women at puberty. Kunoodyaadye synthesizes references to the Senufo creation myth and to the role of women as the matrices of life and the guarantors of social continuity."
The Art Historical Importance of the Kunin Statue
The highly stylized minimalist features of the Kunin figure place it into the exceedingly rare corpus of works by the so-called Master of Sikasso, a name of convenience devised by the Senufo expert Burkhard Gottschalk to identify a nameless artist active in the 19th and early 20th century in the region of Sikasso in Burkina Faso, near the borders to Ivory Coast and Mali. See Gottschalk (2002: 119-137). Figures in this style represent the pinnacle of Senufo sculpture, one of the most iconic expressions of African art, and are revered as universal masterpieces of abstraction.
Apart from the Kunin figure, only two other statues by this artist are known. Both represent females: one in the Dallas Museum of Art (inv. no. “1974.SC.15”, previously Gustave and Franjo Schindler Collection, published in Walker 2009: 187, cat. 63), and a second formerly in the collection of Helena Rubinstein, New York and Paris (sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, The Helena Rubinstein Collection, April 21, 1966, lot 95). Three other works are not by the master’s hand but so close that they can be attributed to the same workshop: the first is a female figure distinguished by her wide face of almost trapezoid outline (Wick and Denner 2009: folio IV, fig. 3). The other two are works by a distinguished artist: a male and a female figure, possibly originally a pair. The female figure was previously in the collection of Allen Wardwell and its current whereabouts are unknown. The male figure was sold at Enchères Rive Gauche, Paris, Collection Vérité, June 17-18, 2006, lot 167.
All figures by the Master of Sikasso and his workshop display a cylindrical base underneath slender cylindrical legs, and a tall fin-shaped torso oriented with the narrow edge to the front. Wide shoulders expand the sculptures into space and angle down to lithe arms that rest on the hips. Positioned as parallel echoes to the torso, the arms frame two elliptical open spaces which, seen from the front, are penetrated from above by the tips of conical breasts. All figures show a rectangular amulet suspended from the neck, possibly containing a page of the Qur’an. The sturdy neck carries the head, an elliptical wedge with forward-thrusting chin. The face is conceived by a decisive subtraction of volume from the head, through two simple cuts that meet perpendicularly in the center of the head along the brow-line, saving only a thin long vertical and three short horizontal bars. By this ingenious move, the artist creates facial plane, stern brows, nose, and lips, using the original frontal surface of the head. The circles for ears and the pyramidal band that forms the coiffure complete the figure’s minimalist geometries. This is Cubism in its purest form, avant la lettre.
While all figures from the Sikasso complex share the same architecture and may equally be called masterpieces of conception, the Kunin figure drives every single idea to the pinnacle of aesthetic perfection, resulting in a masterpiece of both conception and execution. The statue’s stance tends slightly to the proper left, suggesting motion and lightness, as if an otherworldly being defies gravity. The Kunin statue’s openwork spaces between arms and torso are also more elongated, and the outlines created by the swelling and reducing forms of the arms more defined and geometrically centered. In profile, the arms’ dynamic curve mirror the elegantly projecting abdomen indicating pregnancy, creating intersecting, cascading waves. The shoulders are wider and more voluminous in the Kunin statue than in the other examples, conveying a strong, unwavering female presence. A commanding and haunting expression emerges from the rigidity of structural elements: the brow-line is perfectly horizontal and each angle between brow, nose, nostrils and mouth is almost exactly ninety degrees. This effect is augmented further by the Kunin figure’s lack of shells and seed attachments, elements of ethnographic interest that are more obstacle than aid to the understanding of the sculptural innovation accomplished by the Master of Sikasso. Even small details such as the ears distinguish the artist’s exquisite vision in his pursuit of the absolute: while in the Rubinstein and Dallas figures the ears are rendered as somewhat irregular round bands attached to the surface of the head, they are perfectly circular and organically scooped volumes in the Kunin figure.
The mastery expressed in all these details makes the Kunin statue not only the unrivalled paragon of its genre but one of the greatest abstract sculptures of all time. In its minimalist representation of the female body, it can only be compared to less than a handful of sculptures, such as a marble statue by the Cycladic artist known as the Schuster Master (ca. 2,400 BCE), or Alberto Giacometti’s Grand Femme Debout II (1959-1960). Standing in line with these great artists, the innovation of the representation of facial features and groundbreaking use of open space in the Kunin Statue has yet to be surpassed.
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