The Senufo Ceremonial Bed

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!

senufo-bed-04 senufo-bed-02

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 RandAfricanArt.com 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.

senufo-bed-05 senufo-bed-03

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.

Category: On the Road

Comments

  1. TimV January 18, 2013

    Awesome story Marc! Not only is the piece wonderful but the importance of it is spectacular. Many thanks to your clients for allowing you to show and explain this beautiful bed.

  2. Show of hands, who here would take a nap on a used funeral bed???

    Joking aside, that is an impressively huge piece to come out of one tree. Thanks for sharing!~

  3. David H January 18, 2013

    i think its defiantly a unique piece. but my eye is drawn to the turtle shell? (maybe a shield of some kind?)

    and were the legs of the bed attached or part of the carving? its hard to see any grain pattern on my computer to judge. but in anyway. its neat!! (and a conversational piece)

    (hes not a chiropractor is he hahah (just lay right here as i adjust your back) )

  4. Eric R January 18, 2013

    Way cool !
    Lots of other cool artifacts depicted as well.
    Your client must be a very interesting person.
    Thanks Marc.

  5. Adam January 18, 2013

    Amazing. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

  6. jeff January 18, 2013

    Could we see some pictures of your Dogon bed??

  7. Another project in the books.
    Marc! Congratulations and another satisfied repeating client.
    Nice to see.
    Ah …. to send this I had to do some very complicated math :)

  8. It is a good day when you learn something new (to you). Seeing and touching a piece makes most of us much more receptive to then digging a bit deeper.
    Thanks to you for sharing and especially to your client for the opportunity.
    Have a great weekend.

  9. It’s beautiful but until they read the text, it will, I fear, conjure visions of that painfully unsuccessful first marriage for some of your viewers.

  10. Wow, Thanks for sharing Marc. Your stuff must really fit in well there.

  11. Stan P (http://none) January 20, 2013

    Yes , thanks to your client for letting you share these pictures. It is certainly a very impressive piece and a fascinating back story to go with it. It is incredible that an 80 year old piece of wood that large still has no cracks. Thanks for sharing.

  12. steve January 23, 2013

    I like an extra firm matress but this might be over doing it :)

  13. Andy January 23, 2013

    Your clients may know Tim Hamill but your readers may enjoy perusing his catalog of African art work if you are ever by his place in Boston I recommend calling to view his stuff the http://www.hamillgallery.com/index.html

  14. matt m March 5, 2013

    Could it be maybe Baobab wood? My late uncle is from africa and i have learned that the baobab tree is a sacred tree and is no longer harvested for lumber. I also know baobab as ” the tree of life” living up to 1000years. Interesting if it was baobab wood.

  15. Deborah Lotus May 30, 2013

    Marc, I would be very interested in knowing the full dimensions of this bed? I am the lucky owner of one which came to me because I had an African gallery in Cambridge, MA, the “Talking Drum”…which I intended to sell, but then I could not bear to part with it!
    Mine is 9 feet long, about 30 inches wide, tapering to 28 inches wide at head and foot, about 12 inches high, with the ‘pillow’ section being another 10 inches high. I believe it is over 90 years old, as it was in the family of the Senoufo dealer from whom I purchased it, and his great-great- grandfather might have been the first person for who it was carved in the early 1900’s. I have been told by many dealers and collectors it is the longest one they have ever seen. But your client’s looks to be about the same dimensions? perhaps higher? So I would be really curious if this is longer than your clients’ bed, which is just gorgeous!
    To speak to sleeping or napping on such a bed with those ‘vibrations’ of the dead; I find it quite an honor and oddly comforting, and very comfortable to lie on…it is on my sun porch and I take nude sun naps every day the sun is shining. Although in great condition, it has ‘weathered’ into a corrugated surface, which adds to its comfortable surface, it really feels very ‘soft’…but when I need more comfort, I put a sheepskin on top of it. If anyone reading this is in the greater Boston vicinity, I would be glad to show it off; alas I am getting ready to sell it, if I can bring myself to part with it, but circumstances dictate divesting…and I may be moving out of the area in the next year or so.
    It is very special, and will be missed sorely, but it is time to let go, I’ve owned it long enough…

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