With nearly 160 works on display, Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa explored and challenged established definitions of “Senufo,” perhaps one of the most well-known categories of African art. Working through the five galleries, visitors learned of the historical underpinnings of Senufo as an ethnic, linguistic, and stylistic classification. Visitors were encouraged to challenge their understandings of these classifications through close looking and comparisons of like objects. Finally, they were asked to rethink the stylistic categories by reexamining objects that tend to be outside of the established canon. The brilliant displays and excellent selection of objects provided a visually stunning experience, while the expert organization and insightful texts presented an intricate educational narrative. These two aspects worked together to create one of the most sophisticated and provocative contemporary exhibitions of classical African art to date.
Opening the exhibition, a dark, teal blue wall boldly displaying the exhibition's title and blocking the galleries from view greeted the visitor (Fig. 1). The effect of turning the first corner was stunning. Situated under two spotlights and backed by the same teal blue wall stood a tall pair of wooden sculptures, one male and one female (Fig. 2). This section highlighted the history of European contact with Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire, and the subsequent collection and exhibition of what came to be labeled as “Senufo” art. Reproductions of historical illustrations and photographs gave context to the moment of European “discovery.” A display of historical texts connected explorer accounts to the early twentieth century and the growing popularity among European modernists and early collectors of African art. The objects in this section, apart from being beautiful centerpieces, were also linchpins in the exhibition because their provenance could be traced back to some of the most important early collectors.
Moving into gallery 2, the white-cube aesthetic abruptly changed the mood (Fig. 3). In this section, visitors saw how expectations and classifications of Senufo art were solidified through the Museum of Primitive Art's 1963 exhibition Senufo Sculpture from West Africa and curator Robert Goldwater's 1964 accompanying catalog. The gallery reassembled many of the objects that appeared in the 1963 exhibition and reproduced the aesthetic of this foundational exhibition to illustrate challenges associated with historical attributions. For example, the gallery included a style of mask that was identified as Senufo in 1963 but has since been recategorized.
With warm-colored walls, the third section again shifted focus. For the visitor, the historiography and aesthetic expectations of Senufo were established at this point, and gallery 3 opened up the well-known category of arts associated with Poro initiation. Here, with a long diagonal sightline, the curators and designers created small areas for displaying many subsections (Fig. 4). Each subsection focused on a set of objects: standing figures, zoomorphic helmet masks, face masks, cultivator staffs. These subsections provided space for ample contextual information. The groups of like objects displayed in many different views encouraged visitors to look closely and compare objects (Fig. 5).
Although objects may have served similar purposes, visitors will quickly came to see the endless design possibilities.
Painted in dark green, the fourth section was divided into two subthemes focusing on domestic arts and the arts of divination. The domestic arts section featured three large ceramic pots, each on placed on its own pedestal and under an individual spotlight. Visitors were encouraged to see these vessels not only as utilitarian, but as spaces for aesthetic expression and reception (Fig. 6). Opposite these domestic arts, a narrower, jointed gallery led visitors through various art forms used in Senfuo divination. Again, by placing objects in small groups, visitors were challenged to see variation in style and form (Fig. 7).
The final section of the exhibition challenged visitors to expand the possibilities of classification and to think beyond currently understood Senufo categories. Reemphasizing that people move and interact with each other, this section presented a large number of works typically not classified as Senufo, including many pieces by artists labeled as Bamana, such as ciwara masks and boli figures (Fig. 8). A large helmet mask on loan from the Dallas Museum of Art accentuated the concept that objects may not always fit exclusively into categories as defined by the art world (Fig. 9). This object, with its style and accumulation, is often liked with Bamana Komo practices. But the addition of a female figure in a Senufo carving style revealed a moment in which artistic production transcended strict delineation between Komo and Poro arts. Additionally, fourteen gelatin silver prints by French photographer Agnès Pataux taken in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2006–2008 presented the objects in use and provide a brief glimpse of the individuals who use them.
To help lead visitors through the gallery, this exhibition was accompanied by the CMA's first app-guided audio tour for a temporary exhibition: CMA Senufo. The app connected to the museum-wide wifi to track a visitor's movement through the exhibition. A video introduction from CMA's curator of African art, Constantine Petridis, and further audio tracks linked to the objects in the exhibition. Like many audio tours, the tracks provided visitors with another avenue for learning about the objects. CMA Senufo materials assisted visitors in diving deeper into the pedagogical and theoretical questions asked throughout the exhibition. The conversational tone was neither intimidating nor condescending; instead, it invited engagement with and further exploration of objects in real time as visitors progressed through each section. Although the app expired with the closing of the exhibition, several of the tracks can be accessed in the Past Exhibitions archive on the Cleveland Museum of Art webpage.
As an emerging African art historian, I believe that this insightful and provocative installation of classical African art will drive the field for years to come. The sections and accompanying texts led visitors through a complicated historiography that challenged the current underlying assumptions of how African art is classified. Yet it also presented visually striking objects in a manner that encouraged acts of close looking and comparison. It, thus, returns to the roots of art history while shaking our foundations. I can only wonder how this exhibition was received by nonspecialists. Complications around classification and problematizing history may be of utmost importance to scholars in our field, but how did this communicate and translate to visitors of all walks of life?
After its run at the Cleveland Art Museum, Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa traveled to the St. Louis Art Museum (June 28–September 27, 2016) and the Musée Fabre in Montpelier, France (November 28, 2015-March 6, 2016). As a final note, it would be impossible to discuss this exhibition without mentioning the substantive accompanying book, Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi's Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa (Milan: 5 Continents, 2015; 288 pp., 286 ill.; English and French editions). This impressive scholarly publication is too extensive to be fully reviewed here and deserves the attention accorded to any major publication.