Senufo or Bamana Female Figure, Côte d'Ivoire
Pace Gallery, New York
Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Tenafly, New Jersey, acquired from the above on October 7, 1981
Heinrich Schweizer, Visions of Grace: 100 Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Milan, 2014, p. 34, cat. 7
The present figure from the Malcolm collection is an excellent example of an object which rewards such an “unbound” interpretation. Stylistic analysis reveals a close relationship to sculptures which have been identified as Nyeleni statues for the Jo power association, and labeled Bamana (see Colleyn 2001: cat. no. 129), whilst in overall form and in certain details it also strongly resembles a group of statues that stand atop dome-shaped helmet masks and which conform to the style labeled Senufo (see Gagliardi 2014: cat. nos. 124, 125, and 126).
As Schweizer (2014: 35) notes, the jo power association was “one of the main initiation societies for young women and men [...]. Jo was concerned with kinship and marriage relations between particular families and lineages, and was mandatory for all young men from jo-practicing families. [...] Seen only every seven years at the final climax of the jo initiation rituals, carved standing female figures (jonyeleni) represented the ideal of young female beauty. Expressing fundamental values of marriage, fertility, and family, they were signs summoning the continuity of a community or clan into the future. Iconographically, jonyeleni figures always feature horizontally projecting conical breasts, indicating a young woman that has not yet nurtured children, as well as a slim torso, slender limbs, and jutting buttocks.”
In overall form and in several stylistic details, the present figure is also closely related to a group of figures atop domed helmets, of the well-known style conventionally called Senufo. In her discussion of an example collected by Emil Storrer circa 1950-51, previously in the collection of Josef Müller, Anita Glaze (1993: 16, no. 9) notes that “The deep bowl-shaped cap mask is in fact the earliest documented example of Senufo sculpture and its context, appearing in a funerary procession witnessed by Lieutenant Louis-Gustave Binger in a northern Senufo village near the Mali/Côte d'Ivoire border in 1890.” Glaze (loc. cit.) suggests a possible connection to the corpus of champion cultivator dance caps, but then suggests that “The iconographic theme of the female figure points equally well to a second possible context of meaning and purpose: a poro society mask in recognition of the special powers of women and particularly their priestly role as diviners. The prominence of the female figure [..] in combination with a particular stylistic formula of a stocky body firmly planted in bent-knee stance suggests divination imagery rather than the primordial couple theme. The figure’s ritual dress of exquisitely tiny beads and a loincloth [also present in the Malcolm figure] have fortunately been preserved, thus furnishing a possible reference to sandogo women in a context of high ritual and spiritual energy – the sacred funerary rites for society members in which [...] sandogo initiates wear only the ancient ritual dress of beads and long loincloths as they dance in honor of the deceased. In short, this mask may belong to that extensive range of poro society masquerades featuring female gender motifs that serve as encoded references to the supernatural resources of women for the security and well-being of the poro society family.”
In the absence of specific contextual documentation, whether the present sculpture was created for the jo, the poro, or another power association of the three-corner region may remain a mystery; however the themes expressed in the sacred rituals of these interconnected cultural entities are by no means contradictory, and our reading of this commanding sculpture benefits from this multiplicity of possible meanings.