About the Project

For more than a century, art historians, dealers, and other connoisseurs have identified some art from West Africa as Senufo. Why?

What does the term Senufo convey about art?

Twentieth-century art enthusiasts in Europe and America often classified sculpture by cultural or ethnic group on the basis of an object’s form. This approach assumes a one-to-one correspondence between a cultural or ethnic group and art style.

In 1908, French colonial administrator Maurice Delafosse created a map delineating a so-called Senufo country. His map implies that a single cultural or ethnic group occupies a bounded geographic area. The accompanying text further suggests the group has its own language, social organization, religion, and art.

At the close of the twentieth century, scholars began to question this idea of discrete cultural or ethnic groups.

The term Senufo does not on its own suffice to define or explain people or arts with which it has been linked. In Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa, Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi demonstrates that the multivalent Senufo label operates on many and at times contradictory levels. The Senufo label informs and is shaped by the experiences of people who identify or are identified as Senufo as well as the arts these people create and support.

How do we locate the term Senufo in time and space?

One of the earliest appearances in print of the term Senufo is in an 1887 report by the French medical doctor Louis Frédéric Emile Tautain. In 1892, French colonial administrator Louis-Gustave Binger published a travelogue that includes his observations of communities, language, arts, and people he described as Senufo. Delafosse’s map appeared in his two-part publication spanning the years 1908 and 1909. His work did much to promote the idea that the term Senufo designated a distinct cultural or ethnic group locatable to a bounded geographic area. By the second decade of the twentieth century, European and American art enthusiasts began applying the term Senufo to the arts.

The word Senufo is also often used to designate a family of languages common in communities of the three-corner region, an area defined by the borders of present-day Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. However, Senufo languages are not unique to this linguistically diverse zone. Moreover, language does not necessarily determine social organization, religion, or art.

What is Mapping Senufo?

Mapping Senufo is an ongoing collaborative digital initiative that focuses on arts commonly labeled as Senufo from an area spanning the present-day borders of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali in West Africa.

Mapping Senufo aims to:

  1. visualize time- and place-based information about specific arts and knowledge of the arts;
  2. reveal new possibilities for analyzing histories of art and the production of knowledge; and
  3. generate fresh questions for study of arts that move beyond cultural or ethnic group classifications.


Gagliardi, Susan Elizabeth. “About the Project.” In Mapping Senufo. Atlanta: Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, 2015–. https://www.mappingsenufo.org/?page_id=30 (31 March 2015, updated 22 June 2016), accessed 04 June 2023.