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Date: 19th to 20th century
Medium:Wood, cowrie shells, and red abrus seeds
Geographic Location: Southeastern Mali
Dimensions: Overall: 36 3/8 x 8 1/4 x 6 in. (92.4 x 20.95 x 15.25 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection of African Sculpture, gift of the McDermott Foundation in honor of Eugene McDermott
Object Number: 1974.SC.15
During the funerals of important elders of the Senufo (se-NOO-fo) men’s Poro (POOR-o) society, rhythm pounders like this one are rhythmically swung by the arms and struck against the ground in time with the music of the funeral orchestra. This action compels ancestor spirits to continue to participate in the funeral ceremony.
During a funeral, a rhythm pounder carved in the form of a female, would be accompanied by a male rhythm pounder. At the conclusion of the funeral celebration, the rhythm pounders are returned to the sacred grove of the Senufo village and stored until the next funeral.
This rhythm pounder is carved from hard wood, and cowrie shells form the eyes of the figure. Earlier photographs of this rhythm pounder show cowrie shells, snail shells, and red abrus seeds covering the figure’s coiffure (or hairstyle), upper arms, and abdomen.
This rhythm pounder is carved from durable wood. Earlier photographs indicate that the valuable cowrie shells and red abrus seeds that once covered the navel, arms, and hairstyle of this figure have mostly fallen off.
The word deble, (day-blay) which is often used to describe this rhythm pounder, can be roughly translated as “spirit figure.” The term deble is considered sacred to the Senufo (se-NOO-fo) men’s initiation society, the Poro (POOR-o), and the word would rarely be used outside of a village’s sacred grove. Male and female debles at a funeral are used to represent the original parents of the Senufo peoples who established the social, moral, and intellectual traditions of the community.
This rhythm pounder, in the form of a slender woman, follows the Senufo custom to portray men and women at the height of their physical beauty. She has incised marks and decorations around her navel. The figure represents an ideal, mature woman who was initiated into the Sandogo women’s society, was married, and bore several children.
Within the first few days of the death of a Senufo male, his body is interred by members of his profession and family. During the funeral, rhythm pounders like this one are placed on either side of the corpse, which lies in state on a carved wooden bier or on mats covering the ground. At the appointed time, a member of the occupational group to which the deceased belonged performs a ritual that initiates the deceased into the society of ancestral spirits. At the conclusion of the ritual, spirit figures are swung from side to side and occasionally struck against the earth by village elders in order to rouse the spirits of ancestors. Meanwhile, young men follow behind the elders carrying the corpse. At a certain point in the ceremony, the procession stops, and a pair of rhythm pounders is placed on top of the corpse. Afterward, the procession continues to the cemetery located at the edge of the village. After the body is buried, the rhythm pounders are returned to the Poro sacred grove where they remain until their next appearance.
After the burial of a body, Senufo communities celebrate the ceremonial burial. The length of the Senufo funeral celebration corresponds to the relative social importance of the deceased, so for important members of the men’s Poro society, a funeral could last weeks. During this time, masquerades and celebrations are held to honor the dead. Because these events are expensive to stage, frequently a body will have been buried for months or years before a ceremonial “second burial” occurs.
Peers of the deceased striking rhythm pounders against the ground lead the way to the cemetary. Tyelikaha, Côte d'Ivoire, 1986.
The three million Senufo peoples inhabiting Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso are organized into villages, each governed by a council of elders. Senufo men and women are initiated into gender-specific societies which define their roles. The men’s society, known as the Poro, instructs its members on their social, political, and spiritual roles, while the society known as the Tyekpa or Sandogo teaches young women to become diviners and mediators between the human and spirit worlds.
|Learn about the Senufo peoples.|
|Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss rhythm pounders.|
|Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss this rhythm pounder.|
|Listen to museum educator Shannon Karol discuss ancestors in Africa.|
|Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss the Senufo peoples.|
|Curator Roslyn Walker discusses this rhythm pounder.|
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.