In Focus

Standing female figure ("rhythm pounder")

Art makes a dramatic appearance at the funerals of important elders of Poro, an age-graded society that teaches boys their social, political, and spiritual roles as adult males. Masquerade costumes with fiber or wooden headpieces and carved wooden figures depicting a male and a female appear during funeral celebrations. Small figures are displayed on the ground or near the ground near the corpse, which is wrapped in layers of splendid. locally woven cloths. These cloths are gifts of condolence from the villagers. Large figures carved from a durable hardwood and standing on thick pedestals are used as pestles or pounders in a final ritual.

During the funeral, the large figures 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 the ancestral spirits. At the conclusion of the ritual, young initiates carry the corpse to the cemetery on their shoulders while elder Poro members, each carrying a figure by its arms, neck, or shoulders, lead the way. The figures are swung from side to side and periodically struck against the ground in time with the music of the funeral orchestra; hence, the popular name "rhythm pounder." This action induces the ancestral spirits to continue to participate in the funeral rites. 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. Following interment, 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.

The Dallas figure, which is a superb example of a rhythm pounder, depicts a slender woman with incised marks on her chest and traces of decoration around her navel. Clusters of snail shells, cowrie shells, and red abrus seeds originally adorned her coiffure, upper arms, and abdomen. Early pictures of the Dallas rhythm pounder are reproduced in Robert Goldwater's Seunfo Sculpture from West Africa (1964: fig. 87 and 87a). The figure was lavishly adorned with clusters of snail shells in the sagittal hairstyle, at the nape of the neck, in the center of the chest, around each elbow, and around the torso. Only the cowrie shell eyes remain intact. Although she appears youthful, as is customary for traditional portraiture, the figure represents an ideal adult female who was initiated into the Sandogo society (the women's equivalent of the men's Poro), was married, and bore several children.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A.Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 186.

  • "Standing female figure (rhythm pounder)," DMA Connect, 2012.