Bobo-Dioulasso: Female Figure Reportedly Acquired by André Soing

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Female figure
Private collection
H. 20.5 cm
Reported field acquisition: André Soing, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, 1909-11
Reported provenance: Sotheby’s (Paris), 11 June 2008, lot 75

Bobo-Dioulasso: Female Figure Reportedly Acquired by André Soing

In its catalog for an 11 June 2008 auction, Sotheby’s Paris reports that the French military doctor André Soing acquired this female figure between 1909 and 1915 in Bobo-Dioulasso, a city in present-day Burkina Faso. Distinctive features of the figure include its blocky construction and all-over decoration of incised designs. Present-day scholars, connoisseurs, and collectors of African art commonly recognize the style of carving as Turka and locate the style to an area southwest of Bobo-Dioulasso. Locations and styles connected to other formally similar works vary in twentieth-century publications.

American art historian Robert Goldwater (1964, nos. 117 and 117a) attributes a figure similar in form and then in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Hersey of New York to the “Northern Senufo region” in Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. Goldwater recognizes Sikasso and Bobo-Dioulasso as well as Koutiala as cities in this northern Senufo region (1964, 6, 16). He also states, “Due to the accidents of collecting, the style of the northern region has been best documented, both in number of figures and the record of date when they were found” (1964, 25). Despite Goldwater’s claims about documentation for figures attributed to the region, information about identities of the artists, patrons, or audiences for the sculptures remain elusive.

Goldwater specifies that the Museum of Primitive Art relied on the object’s style rather than specific documentation to determine the attribution of the figure then in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Hersey. Goldwater compares the sculpture to one that French collector Frédéric-Henri Lem stated he acquired “in the region of Sikasso” but attributes to “the region of Segu [Ségou]” (1949, 42, pls. 40-1). Following Lem, Goldwater suggests the figure in the Hersey collection might also come from the district of Ségou, a city located nearly 150 miles northwest of Sikasso and 200 miles northwest of Bobo-Dioulasso.

Whereas Goldwater included figures in this style in a corpus of art he labeled as Senufo and he associated them with a city in present-day Mali in a region he identified as northern Senufo, two European observers link the sculptures to communities they identify with names including “Bobo Fing,” “Gouin,” and “Karaboro” (also “Karoboro”). “Bobo Fing” (Bobo Madaré or Konabéré), “Gouin” (Cerma), Karaboro, and Turka name languages prevalent in a linguistically diverse corner of present-day Burkina Faso. According to the 2016 edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World, the languages belong to different language families, and the source only classifies Karaboro as a Senufo language (Lewis, Paul, Simons, and Fennig 2016). [1]

In addition, present-day labeling of the style as Turka does not necessarily correspond with previous identifications of sculpture as Turka. For example, a sculpture labeled as “Tourka” (Turka) appears in Danish art collector Carl Kjersmeier’s publication Centres de style de la sculpture nègre africaine (1935, 26, fig. 35). The sculpture is now housed in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark, and Kjersmeier likely acquired it during his 1931-1932 collecting trip in West Africa. Its long legs and rounded features render the figure less blocky than other figures today commonly recognized as Turka. In his book, Kjersmeier identifies the town of Banfora in present-day western Burkina Faso with the sculpture’s provenance. Kjersmeier notes that “Tourka” interlocutors reported they received figures similar to the one he reproduced in his book from blacksmiths in neighboring Karaboro communities. Interestingly, another female figure that Kjersmeier brought back from his travels in West Africa formally corresponds more with sculptures now labeled as Turka. However, the collector himself labels it “Bobo” or “Bobo Fing,” and he explains that “Bobo Fing” is the name for one of three Bobo groups culturally close to the group he recognizes as “Tourka” (1935, 25-6, fig. 32).

Few twentieth-century scholars pursued art-focused research in this culturally and linguistically diverse area of western Burkina Faso. Austrian anthropologist Herta Haselberger conducted fieldwork in the area in the early 1960s. In a 1969 article, Haselberger refers to arts she observed in communities she identifies as “Gouin” (Cerma) “Karoboro” (Karaboro) and “Tourka” (Turka). She differentiates “Gouin,” “Karoboro,” and “Tourka” communities from each other and from Senufo communities. But she recognizes certain cultural correspondence among the different groups. Haselberger (1969, 213) also illustrates two standing female figures conceived in what some scholars, connoisseurs, and collectors today would readily call “the Turka style.” Yet based on secondhand information, she locates production of the sculptures to the Banfora region and labels them as “Gouin” and “Karoboro” (1969, 227, fig. 72; 237, pl. 21). Echoing Kjersmeier, Haselberger (1969, 200) wonders if people she recognizes as Gouin may have obtained at least some of their figures from carvers in nearby “Karoboro” communities who had earned distinction for their skill.

A French medical doctor’s reported early-twentieth century acquisition of a sculpture in Bobo-Dioulasso and the sculpture’s blocky form yield little information about where the sculpture was produced, for whom it was created, or how it was used. Various twentieth-century reports also suggest a region of cultural and linguistic dynamism.

Constantine Petridis and Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi
2 June 2016

FOOTNOTES

[1] A place or language name that appears in parentheses or brackets indicates the approved place name as it appears at the time of the essay’s publication in the GEOnet Names Server (GNS), administered by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), or the primary language name as it appears in Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 19th edition (Lewis, Paul, Simons, and Fennig 2016).

REFERENCES

Goldwater, Robert. Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1964.

Haselberger, Herta. “Bemerkungen zum Kunsthandwerk in der Republik Haute Volta: Gourounsi und Altvölker des äussersten Südwestens.” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 94 (1969), 171–246.

Kjersmeier, Carl. Centres de style de la sculpture nègre africaine. Vol. 1. Paris: Editions Albert Morancé, 1935.

Lem, Frédéric-Henri. Sudanese Sculpture. Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1949.

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig, eds. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 19th edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International, 2016. Accessed at: http://www.ethnologue.com, 27 May 2016.

SELECTED PUBLICATION HISTORY

Gagliardi, Susan Elizabeth. Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa, 256, pl. 192. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art; Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2015.

HOW TO CITE

Petridis, Constantine and Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi. “Bobo-Dioulasso: Female Figure Reportedly Acquired by André Soing.” In Mapping Senufo. Atlanta: Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, 2015–. http://www.mappingsenufo.org/archives/796 (2 June 2016), accessed 17 December 2017.