Senufo Diviners Figure in the Form of a Nursing Woman


19th Century AD to 20th Century AD


12.5″ (31.8cm) high




Ivory Coast/Mali

Gallery Location



The Senufo group, based in the Ivory Coast and Mali area, migrated to their current location from the north during the 15th and 16th centuries AD. Their economy is primarily agricultural and settled. As a result specialist trades have become established, primary among which is the expert carver. These are typically important people, as the Senufo have a long history of using highly decorated objects in many aspects of everyday life. Their extremely high level of skill in woodcarving is nowhere better seen than in the realm of their magical-religious art. At the heart of Senufo society is a patriarchal group of elders known as the Poro, which is responsible for many religious and secular functions to do with the running of the tribal group. Smaller-scale magical issues, however, are usually dealt with by diviners or soothsayers (sandoo), who use items such as this in their prognostications. The society of diviners, of which every sandoo is a member, is called the sandogo. The diviner, who is usually female, will lay out a series of figures and magical objects in a consulting room, which the client will then address with numerous questions as the procedure takes place. The figures vary to an extent. They are meant to represent bush spirits (Ndebele, although the term varies), although most known examples depict individuals with female characteristics; this is perhaps a function of the fact that most diviners are women. Ethnographic accounts detail that these items were used in open-air ceremonies by all the members of the sandogo society, although this is not commonly seen today. The current figure is a strongly-modelled female breast-feeding two infants seated upon her knees. The fact she is seated upon a stool, as in many other areas of African art, suggests that she represents a high status individual; this is substantiated by her exotic headdress and armbands. Her elongated head, crested coiffure and navel scarring are typical of the Senufo polities, while the scarifications on her face and the sides of her head would denote the area where the piece was made. The mood of the piece is almost aggressively powerful and dynamic, with the projecting jaw, face and breasts. The dark colour of the piece, caused by smoke exposure, adds to the dynamic effect. The face is exquisitely carved, with almond-shaped eyes, a protuberant forehead and small pursed lips in a concave face. The rest of the body is comparatively plain by comparison, although it conveys a sense of monolithic solidity. The piece is glossy, with a combination of usage and exposure to the elements. This is a compelling piece of Senufo carving, and an powerful symbol of their magicoreligious culture.

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