The Senufo Ceremonial Bed

Article - January 18, 2013

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of delivering the Dogon Platform Bed to the clients’ home. It’s always a treat to step into their world, not only because this is now the 8th or 9th piece I’ve made for them and I can visit my “old friends”, but because they are collectors of fine African art and artifacts! I can’t imagine a more suitable home for my work. The platform bed I just made was named after the Dogon people of Africa. Not necessarily because the bed resembles something they would have made but more for the client’s inspiration for the piece and subsequent pieces I’ll be making for the bedroom set.

senufo-bed-06After we carefully placed the bed parts on the floor, I couldn’t help but notice another bed that overshadowed my own creation. In their living room was a hand-carved wooden bed that was impossible to miss. It appeared to be carved from a single piece of wood and was clearly designed for a specific purpose. The tool marks were plainly visible and the piece appeared well-used. The bed had a built-in pillow with some additional features that seemed to only add artistic flair. The client informed me that this was a ceremonial bed used for funerals by the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast of Africa.

senufo-bed-01After I got over my initial squeamishness knowing that many dead bodies previously adorned this amazing creation, I asked if I could photograph the piece and feature it on the website for everyone to enjoy. The bed is approximately 79 years of age and it is indeed a one-piece carving. While they don’t know for sure exactly what wood species it is, they do know it is no longer legal to harvest the tree it came from. I imagine the original logs must have been massive!

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Beds like this one were used to hold the bodies of dignitaries or wealthy people prior to the burial and during the funeral ceremony. Here’s an excerpt from that I found very interesting.

The complexity of the Senufo funeral rites derives both from the importance of the event and from the danger incurred by the whole group. The spirit of the dead man roams around the village and lingers in the spots he used to frequent. If this force is allowed to roam freely around, it could bring back the original chaos. It is therefore essential that it should be captured. The initiates alone have the power and energy to overcome the dead man’s spirit.

The Tyolobele blow on great horns made out of a single piece of wood. These are the nanaa, and they evoke the roar of a lion. The Poro dignitaries beat on thin, high-pitched drums called tyepingdaana. They are accompanied by the laladyogo, an enigmatic character muffled up in a cotton cloth which reveals only the eyes. On his head he wears a large plaited straw hat decorated with the white and black feathers of a fishing eagle.

The strange procession follows the tracks of the dead man’s soul through the village and up to the bed on which his body lies. One of the kponyungo masqueradors then takes a small armpit drum, jumps up on the bed and stands astride the corpse, all the time beating a rapid beat on the instrument with his fingers. He is assisted by an initiate who shakes iron bells to the same rhythm. The function of this ritual is to stress, with the help of the music, the power of the Poro society, and also to chase the dead man’s soul right away from the village and the cultivated fields and into the region of the dead.

While the overall craftsmanship might be considered “crude” by our modern sensibilities, one has to be impressed with what these folks were able to do with limited tooling and a giant log. What I found most impressive was the fact that this piece was still in excellent shape. I would love to know more about the process they used to create this piece and construct it in such a way that 79 years and another continent later, there isn’t a visible crack to be seen! A big thank you goes out to my client for allowing me to post these pictures!

Upon reading my article, the client was able to supply me with a little more detail on how the Senufo people make these tables. The logs are first air-dried and seasoned. Their carving is mostly done with an adze and finished with a hand made chisel type tool on a dry log. They only have a couple of tools, and they hold the adze like a hoe, stand over the wood and chip away with fairly shallow chips. Because the wood is so hard when dry, they soak it overnight in water to soften the fibers. While the wood is still wet, they do the initial carving, let it dry, and then soak it one more time before doing the final carving. Large objects such as this bed can take months to complete.

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While it may not look very comfortable, the client assures me that it is quite relaxing to lie in and he often takes an afternoon nap on it.