female ancestor figure

Senufo people
Creation date
41 5/8 x 8 x 3 3/4 in.
Credit line
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Crane Fund, Anonymous Art Fund, Mary V. Black Art Endowment Fund, Lucille Stewart Endowed Art Fund, Mrs. Pierre F. Goodrich Endowed Art Fund, General Endowed Art Fund
Accession number
Currently On View In
Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art - W304

This imposing and dignified figure embodies the original female ancestor.  It was kept in a shrine, along with her male counterpart.  This primordial, or original, ancestral couple sometimes was taken from the shrine on the occasion of funeral processions, where the dead were initiated into the world of ancestral spirits and family ancestors were remembered.

During funeral processions, when the figures embodying the original couple were carried, they were often swung from side to side.  Sometimes they were struck to the ground, serving as a musical instrument accompanied by horns and drums.

This figure wears a typical Senufo hairstyle, waist garment, armlets, and scarification markings on the head and body.  The prominent breasts make reference to ideal womanhood in the prime of life.  The feet and what was probably a circular base have been eroded away.  Discoloration, possibly from the figure standing in water, and possibly insect damage, are apparent on the lower part of the legs.

This sculpture was carved by a trained artist whose name, unfortunately, is lost to us.  This skilled sculptor had an eye for form and balance, as can be seen, for example, in the gracefully arched back and thrusting of the breasts and stomach.

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Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

This strong, lithe, carved wood figure represents the female half of a primordial couple, the Mother Ancestor of the Senufo people of Western Africa. She wears a typical helmetlike Senufo hairstyle, waist garment, armlets, lip plug, and body markings on the torso, breasts, and temples. Her conical, potent breasts refer to ideal womanhood and the prime of life; long arms signify her identity as a caretaker. That the artist was a master of form, balance, and proportion is evidenced by the gently arching back, delicate head, and weighted hips and fists. The feet and what was probably a circular base have been eroded, probably by insect and water damage. The figure would have been kept in a shrine, along with a male counterpart. It would have been taken out for funeral processions that initiated the dead into the spirit world and in which the living invoked deceased family members. The sculpture’s dark surface color is a clear sign of extensive handling in tropical African conditions.

These male and female primordial ancestors maintain social order by mediating with the supernatural world and passing down moral, intellectual, and life skills to successive generations. The figure’s dignity reflects the traditional maternal inheritance line in Senufo society.

It’s the rhythms of [the figure] that are so beautiful: the head and the two breasts, the length of the arms coming down to her waist.
—Artist Romare Bearden, 1987, on the subject of this sculpture