The Senufo peoples consult diviners (sando), who invoke nature spirits to determine the cause of and remedy for an illness or misfortune. These ambiguous nature spirits (madebele)—believed to live in the forest (or “bush” as it is commonly called), fields, and streams surrounding Senufo villages—both cause and cure misfortune.
A barren woman, for example, would seek a diviner’s advice to learn the cause of her infertility. After casting assorted symbolic items (miniature sculptures and natural objects) before a group of display figures representing the nature spirits and a pair of sculpted male and female primordial twins, the diviner interprets the spirits’ messages, which are expressed in the positional relationships among the cast pieces. A small cowrie inserted into a larger one, for instance, is a symbol of pregnancy issues.
Originally part of a diviner's group of display figures, this carved equestrian figure depicts a madebele on his steed. Madebele are believed to possess some human traits, such as appreciating the visual and performing arts. They are therefore attracted to music, dance, and sculptures that are tana, that is “beautiful,” connoting luxury.
An equestrian sculpture would be especially attractive to the madebele because it expresses aggressive masculinity, mobility to travel about (especially at night), status, and wealth. Although horses could survive in the local environment, they were uncommon. Originally imported from North Africa, they came to be connected with invasions of foreign mounted warriors during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is understandable then that horses became associated with authority, wealth, and power. A client would have confidence in a diviner who owned such an equestrian figure, because only very successful diviners could afford to acquire them.
Mounted horsemen are typically depicted wearing a conical, magic-imbued warrior’s or hunter’s hat and holding a spear in one hand. The sculptor of this equestrian figure, on his own or under the direction of a diviner who dreamt it, emphasized the horseman’s aggressive power by giving him both a warrior’s and a hunter’s hat and by baring his teeth. The figure’s arched back creates the illusion of forward movement while his fanlike hands, which hold neither a spear nor reins, signify control of his horse—a static figure with its head lowered—with his strong limbs and spiritual powers.
Roslyn Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), (cat. 25), 102.