The Sejen bird figures of the Senufo People, Ivory Coast

The art of the Senufo people is quite popular nowadays, and their sculpture and masks are found in many European and American collections.  There are about 3 million Senufo living in the north of the Ivory Coast and the southern area of Mali. As in every country that was in touch with Islam and Christianity, many aspects of the traditional "native" culture were destroyed, especially in the 1950's where a new syncretic movment, "Massa or Alkora", was in the area.  There has been much French ethnologic field researchin that region.  Those pioneers had their own methods of acquiring pieces (that's another story).

The topic I want to introduce here is the "Sejen ceremony".   Sejen, "the bird", is a wooden sculpture that is mounted on a high post.  The wings are effused, and on the bird's back there are often another two smaller birds on minor sticks, and a cloth that is waving in the wind.  During September and October the young men of the city must build a yam field with hoes.  That's hard work, so it is organised as a competition.  There are many aspects in this hoe-competition, and in this article I only want to analyse the function and the art of selection of a few Sejen birds, and to show in this short report how their function has changed.

Function
"Sejen" is, for the Senufo people, translated as "the one that is following, that protects the younger generation".  During the hoe ceremony, the staff is rarely seen by the worker.  But at end of the work the older ones, who had watched the competition for the whole day and had prepared the ground for the event, take the Sejen staff and a few hoes and start to scream for joy and happiness in front of the musicians and to dance.  The best of the young men will be praised by them.  They are told facetiously (but with some truth) by the girls that were standing on the border of the field, that they have now a good chance.  The young women come to the field during the day, with big pots.  The pots are filled with rice, yam and meat, but eating is allowed only after the work is done.  

Staffs like the Sejen also appear outside of the yam fields today.  The Sejen is adopted by women associations (they are called “Come and save me”) in many villages of Kafibele, Kassembele and Gbatobele.  They originated a few years ago, to help the men during the cotton harvest, which needed to be finished in a few days.  The loss of the tradition that was based on an economy where relatives helped during the harvest time, led to the present situation where those women's associations now help during the harvest.  Only the association has the possibilty to provide helpers for the harvest.  Picking the cotton under the stress of time is seen by many as a situation parallel to the yam harvest, and now the role of the sejen has a special importance here.

During a funeral the woman greet the mourners with the staff of the birds of the hoe-competion.  It is a sign of dignity and respect.   The bird probably supports the ghost of the dead, protecting him against bad ghosts on his way to the ancestors.

(The preceding section is an approximate translation of  pp. 25-29 in Förster T., Die Kunst der Senufo, Museum Rietberg 1988)

Art
The are many types of Sejen birds known; single, double and triple bird.  I believe the numbers shows the importance of the harvest.   There is always a high sensibility taken on the details, the form always shows the spreading of the wings.  The reasons why some of the birds have additional birds on them, is only speculative.  I suspect that the notion that more is better was adopted here.  For example, more children on maternity figures lead to more fertitilty.  There are colored ones (dot motif) and colorless ones.  Oil color was always expensive, so I think those that are colored got special attention.   It could also be that the uncolored ones were originally colored with natural (earth based) color, but this needs further research.

From the research I have done, I came to the conclusion that a Sejen bird was not only used one time in a hoe-competition. The Sejen birds I saw always had more than one coulor dot motivf, so they had to have been used more often.  I think this is important; the Sejen bird had a power that was not only temporary (only for the competition), it also was kept and used in many ways (funeral).  

I think there are 3 main styles, an earlier one that is more reduced to the function of the bird (less detailed).   I would date it between 1880 and 1910, and a younger one, between 1920 and 1940, that is more detailed, and finally a style that is overdecorated and nearly abstract, from 1940 to the present.

Here are some examples.

Sejen 1:  L: 57 cm, Provenance: R. and D. David, Kilchberg,
Copyright: Museum Rietberg Zürich, Die Kunst der Senufo Förster 1988.


Sejen 2: 45 cm, Provenance: G. and M. Minkoff, Geneva,
Copyright: Museum Rietberg Zürich, Die Kunst der Senufo Förster 1988.


Sejen 3: L: 30 cm, Provenance: U.Horstmann, Zug,
Copyright: Museum Rietberg Zürich, Die Kunst der Senufo Förster 1988


Sejen 4: L: 65 cm, B: 35 cm, Musee des Arts Africains et Oceaniens, Paris (NAN 64-14-4), Copyright 1990 Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, die Kunst der Senufo Elfenbeinküste, T.Förster 1990


Sejen 5: Height: 19”.  Provenance: Ex. Dorothy Brill Robbins coll.,
Copyright : Howard S.Rose Gallery


Sejen 6: H: 48,5 cm Provenance: Private German Collection,
Copyright: Archiv Zemanek-Münster,Würzburg


Sejen 7: L: 17,5 cm and15 cm, Provenance: Coll. Dr. C. von
Castelberg, Zürich Copyright: Archiv Zemanek-Münster,Würzburg

 

© David Zemanek
With the permission of Tribal Art Forum



Literature:

  • Förster T., Die Kunst der Senufo, Museum Rietberg 1988
  • Förster T., Die Kunst der Senufo Elfenbeinküste, VKM Berlin, 1990
  • Schädler K.-F., Lexikon afrikanische Kunst und Kultur, Munich 1994

  • 23-3-2008

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