The Senufo are diverse people who have varied cultural backgrounds and speak different dialects. Nonetheless, they share a central social institution—Poro—to which all men belong. Within a Senufo community, each occupational group—farmers, traders, artisans—has its own Poro chapter. Poro supervises the initiation of adolescent boys and provides continuing social and political guidance to its members. Members of its female counterpart, the Sandogo association, are diviners whose responsibilities include the maintenance of good relations with the spiritual world. Together, the men’s and women’s societies work to ensure the physical and spiritual well-being of the community.
This male and female pair, representing an ideal Senufo man and woman, commemorates the original ancestors of the Senufo account of creation. Poro’s leadership commissions such figural pairs for a display to reinforce social teachings during initiation ceremonies. The figures are also displayed at funerals of important Poro elders, a time of community grief and loss. Embodying Senufo beliefs concerning order and continuity, the figures remind the living of the importance of preserving connections with past generations.
Similar in form, the figures stand erect, legs slightly flexed and facing forward, with large ears cocked forward and jutting chin. Their elongated columnar torsos are framed by broad curving shoulders from which attenuated arms extend fluidly, swelling into blocky hands. Both the frontal poses and the exaggerations of human anatomy visualize ideas about power, determination, and vitality. The extended navels refer to an awareness of the wisdom of the ancestors and, in the case of the female figure, also stress the role of women in the continuity of human life. The figures’ eyes are nearly closed as if in meditation, a reference to the inner strength they possess.
The male figure carries a scythe, a symbol that he is the farmer and provider. The woman’s exaggerated conical breasts and swelling belly indicate that she bears and nurtures children. The man’s extraordinary headdress, the woman’s equally impressive coiffure, their facial scarification, and body adornments signify their high status. Together, they reflect the complementary social roles of men and women in Senufo culture.
© 2006 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (by permission)
Male and Female Poro Altar Figures (Ndeo) at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.