Lot 48
  • 48

Senufo Female Statue (deble), Ivory Coast or Burkina Faso

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  • wood
  • Height: 36 1/4 in (92.1 cm)


Emil Storrer, Zurich, presumably acquired in 1952
Werner Muensterberger, New York, acquired from the above on December 30, 1958
William Rubin, New York, acquired from the above in 1987
Sotheby's, New York, May 15, 1991, lot 54
Armand Arman, New York, acquired at the above auction
Alain de Monbrison, Paris, acquired from the above
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired from the above on March 19, 1999


The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, Traditional Arts of Africa's Nations, May 17 - July 9, 1961
The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, February 20 - March 5, 1963; additional venues:
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, July 12 - August 12, 1963
The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, September 27 - October 27, 1963
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, September 27, 1984 - January 15, 1985; additional venues:
The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, February 26 - May 19, 1985
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, June 23 - September 1, 1985
The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., temporary loan to the Permanent Collection Gallery, October 1987 - January 1988
Museum of African Art, New York, Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals, February 13 - August 22, 1993; additional venues:
The Bermuda National Gallery, Hamilton, October - December, 1993
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, February - April, 1994
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, May - September, 1994
The Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, January - March, 1995
Musée d'arts africains, océaniens, amérindiens, Marseille, Arman & l'art africain, June 23 - October 30, 1996; additional venues:
Musée national des arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, Paris, December 3, 1996 - February 17, 1997
Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Museum für Völkerkunde, Cologne, Die Sammlung Arman. Afrikanische Kunst, March 21 - August 10, 1997
The Museum for African Art, New York, African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection, October 9, 1997 - April 19, 1998
Hamline University Art Galleries, Saint Paul, Icons of Perfection. Figurative Sculpture from Africa, December 2, 2005 - February 11, 2006
Fondation Beyeler, Basel-Riehen, Visual Encounters: Africa, Oceania, and Modern Art, January 25 - May 24, 2009
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, iAfrica: Connecting with Sub-Saharan Art, October 3, 2009 - April 5, 2010


Robert Goldwater, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, New York, 1964, ills. 88 and 88a
Werner Gillon, Collecting African Art, London, 1979, p. 50, fig. 38
William Rubin, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, 1984, vol. 1, p. 131
William Rubin, Le Primitivisme dans l’art du 20e siècle. Les artistes modernes devant l’art tribal, Paris, 1987, p. 131
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat and Lucien Stéphan, L'art africain, Paris, 1988, p. 82, pl. 34
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, and Lucien Stéphan (eds.), Die Kunst des Schwarzen Afrika, Freiburg, 1989, p. 80, pl. 34
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat and Lucien Stéphan, Art of Africa, New York, 1993, p. 82, pl. 34
Mary H. Nooter, Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals, New York, 1993, p. 155, cat. 79
Mary Nooter Roberts and Susan Vogel, Exhibition-ism: Museums and African Art, New York, 1994, p. 30
Musées de Marseille, Arman & l'art africain, Marseille and Paris, 1996, p. 166, cat. 155
Klaus Schneider (ed.), Die Sammlung Arman. Afrikanische Kunst, Cologne, 1997
The Museum of African Art, African Faces, African Figures: The Arman Collection, New York, 1997, p. 63, cat. 12
Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, The Tribal Arts of Africa, London, 1998, p. 74, fig. A
Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, L'Art tribal d'Afrique Noire, Paris, 1998, p.74, fig. A
Burkhard Gottschalk, Senufo: Massa und die Statuen des poro, Dusseldorf, 2002, p. 131
Burkhard Gottschalk, Sénoufo: Massa et les statues du poro, Dusseldorf, 2002, p. 131
Frank Herreman, Icons of Perfection. Figurative Sculpture from Africa, Saint Paul, 2006, pp. 14-15, cat. 1, and front and back cover
Oliver Wick and Antje Denner (eds.), Bildgewaltig: Afrika, Ozeanien und die Moderne, Basel, 2009, folio IV, no. 1 and fig. b, and folio XVII
Oliver Wick and Antje Denner (eds.), Visual Encounters: Africa, Oceania, and Modern Art, Basel, 2009, folio IV, no. 1 and fig. b, and folio XVII
François Neyt, Trésors de Côte d'Ivoire, Brussels: Fonds Mercator, 2014, chapter 2, fig. 26 (forthcoming)
Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi, Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa, Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, and Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2015, fig. 1 (forthcoming)


Good condition for an object of this age and rare type. Ankles broken due to insect damage, glued with original pieces and stabilized with fill and embedded wood pins. Insect damage to proper right edge of integrally-carved wood plinth, , filled with plaster or wood paste in the 1950s. Area of loss to proper right bottom edge of integrally-carved wood plinth (insect damage). Underside of plinth worn from use, with small hole in center of underside for attachment to modern base. Some shallow surface age cracks including a diagonal crack to center of torso as shown in catalogue illustrations, and a vertical crack to back of proper right shoulder. Minor marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, and small chips throughout consistent with age and use. Abrasions to outside of arms. Some chipping around edges, including to coiffure and necklace pendant. The pendant edges with some black fill (remnants of resin). Exceptionally fine glossy medium brown patina with some encrustation. Areas of dark stain in coiffure, to torso under breasts, to both elbows, and to torso above the waist from previous attachments of resin and seed ornaments.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The Kunin Senufo Female Statue

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.  

Cultural Context

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.