History and Art of the African Senufo People

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The Senufo people are hunters and farmers living in the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso. A council of elders led by an elected chief governs their villages. The Senufo society has a strong caste system. Farmers are at the top of this hierarchy, musicians at the very bottom. Young men work at the fields throughout the farming seasons, often competing in farming games. Earning the tag of a sambali or champion cultivator is a huge achievement in the Senufo world. When a sambali man grows older, he is often rewarded with leadership positions.

Young Senofu men are also initiated into the forest-residing Poro clan. This forest life is an educational process. During this period, the young men create woodcarvings, brass sculptures and the famous Senufo masks.

The Senufo people have masks for every occasion. The Kpeli-yehe mask used during funerals forces the spirit of the deceased to leave the home. Male and female versions of the rare Degele mask are used in the "Great Festival of the Dead" or the kuomo ceremony. Other masks include the zoomorphic Kagba mask and the fearsome double-headed Wanyugo mask. The Wabele clan of the Senufo people used the latter to scare off harmful spirits during times of crisis.

The Senufo tribe also created a wide range of statues. The Pombibele or rhythm pounder was carried to burials. The statue was pounded into the burial site to force the deceased's spirit to leave the human realm. The Poro society also created standing bird sculptures to stand within the forest during initiation ceremonies of young Senufo men.

The men of the Senufo tribe create stylized paintings of masked men and animals. The canvas is generally a piece of white, loosely woven cotton material. The Senufo artist first draws the figures using a yellowish-green dye extracted from the local falma bush. They then paint over this using black paint produced from mud from the swamps. The Senufo people believe that these paintings have supernatural powers and offer protection, especially to hunters. In the past, these paintings were sewn into dance and hunting clothes. These days, they are more popular as souvenir items.

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