Review of ‘Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa’ at the Cleveland Museum of Art: Mysterious Histories

March 25, 2015 8:14 PM

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Review of ‘Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa’ at the Cleveland Museum of Art: Mysterious Histories

With their one-two punch of physical beauty and formal power, the carved wooden figures, helmets and masks energizing the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa” (through May 31) will knock you out, even though you won’t know exactly what hit you: Not even scholarly specialists have fully penetrated the deeper meanings and secret functions of the exhibition’s wood and metal totems, most of which were fashioned by unidentified 19th- and early 20th-century artists from Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, whose diverse works have been categorized by Western admirers as “Senufo.”

Take, for example, the commanding couple that confronts visitors at the show’s entrance. Proud in posture and aggressively angular in composition, these companion figures are intensified by exaggeratedly jutting jaws, projectile breasts (the female), beaklike genitals (the male), and parallel rows o...

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