ARTS AND CRAFTS FROM WEST AFRICA: carving IN THE SENUFO REGION

Carver Songuifolo Silué carving a wooden figure. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Sirasso (Boundiali region, Ivory Coast), 1978

Songuifolo Silué colouring a wooden figure with a red plant-based paint and iron-rich river mud. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Sirasso (Boundiali region, Ivory Coast), 1978

Songuifolo Silué washing the now black figure with water. Photo: Karl-Heinz Krieg, Sirasso (Boundiali region, Ivory Coast), 1978

The art of carving is done exclusively by men of certain professional groups. In addition to the actual carvers, there are sometimes also farmers, blacksmiths and Numus, who learn the craft. The traditional carving process is accompanied by cultic practices, beginning with the ritual of slaughtering a chicken before chopping a tree down so that the wood can be used to work with. If the tree is said to be home to a spiritual being, it must be asked by way of offering gifts, to seek a different place of residence. It is essentially forbidden to fell any tree in the holy grove, the home of the Poro. The Kapok tree is seen to be the main type of tree said to house spirits.

The blades of the tools (knives, crosscutters – so-called adzes, piercers, planes, etc.) are made by the forgers for the woodcarvers. The woodcarvers then add the handles, because as an old woodcarver once said, “a woodcarver does not touch fire”, i.e. he is not to forge himself. The piece of work (whether figure or mask, stool or bed) is usually worked out of a single piece of wood. Only armchairs, or sometimes helmets, consist of several assembled parts. Carvers prefer to use freshly cut wood, i.e. green wood, and when they take breaks they place their piece of work in water to prevent it drying out and possible splitting. The coarse or finer adzes are used, as well as a knife and a piercer, and slowly the figure or mask emerges from the wood: at first with rough angular edges, and then slowly it moves into having the typical curves. Carvers prefer using the adze to start off with, and will only use their carving knife right at the very end.

Final Treatment and Patina
From time immemorial, the Senufo carvers have occasionally smoothed out their sculptures at the end of the process using rough leaves or scraped them with the blade of the adze, as well as always colouring them at the end. That means that you find pieces that have a completely smooth surface as apposed to those that still show the blows from the adzes and knives. The colouring is done with a red juice, obtained from the fibers scraped from a tree root. After the juice has dried, iron-rich river mud is applied using a chicken feather or a splint of wood, which transforms the red colour into a deep black – a process which is similar to the Flafani dyeing technique. The object, which is then cleaned of the mud, is finally rubbed  with fat which gives it a matt-glossy finish. Only rarely will a carver be willing to give a piece of his art away before it has been dyed. The patina, the appearance and the texture on the surface of an old piece, be it a cult or utility object, depends entirely on the owner's use of the piece. The thickness of, for example, a use patina says very little about the real age of a piece. It may have been used more or less frequently and intensively leading to the resulting thickness of patina. Also, the storage is crucial to how the patina will look. If a piece is, for example, stored near a smoky hearth in order to protect it from insects, it will inevitably result in a typical smoke patina with soot layers. Other pieces, on the other hand, are carefully wrapped in cloths, so that even after twenty years or more they will not look their age. There are cult objects that are used daily, others which are only in rituals with seven-year intervals. Accordingly, they will age and develop their patina slower or more quickly. The function of the cult objects is versatile. Even today they are often used for religious dance, the worship of the ancestors, but also for the practices in the secret societies. We can safely say that no Senufo artwork was ever carved solely for its aesthetic beauty. It always has a function to fulfill, and for that function it is, so to speak, “power-charged” through sacrifice and consecration.

Karl-Heinz Krieg, 1980
From: Kunst und Kunsthandwerk aus Westafrika. With a preface by Dr. Klaus Volprecht, Leverkusen 1980.
Translation: Mary Miller