Scarification in Ivory Coast

Figure with scarification marks and Senufo man with scarified cheeks, Baule or Senufo people, Ivory Coast

[b]Left:[/b] Donated by Robert Powley Wild in 1936; 1936.55.1[br][b]Right:[/b] From a photograph taken by Susan Vogel in 1980, courtesy of the photographer.Left: Donated by Robert Powley Wild in 1936; 1936.55.1
Right: From a photograph taken by Susan Vogel in 1980, courtesy of the photographer.
For the Baule people of southern Ivory Coast, and their northern Senufo neighbours, scarification is a "mark of civilization" that differentiates the cultured, socialized and beautified human body from the natural, naked and ugly bodies of animals. It imposes order on the chaos of nature and acts as a measure of the wearer's social worth and self-esteem.

It is interesting to compare this desire for bodily perfection through marking and adornment with the prevailing opposite attitude to the body in Western Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. At this time drawings showing the 'exotic' body art of newly discovered peoples in the Americas and Oceania were analysed (or rather, judged) against the European Christian model of the perfectly 'natural' (i.e. unadorned) body made in God's image.

This wooden figure could have been made by a Baule or a Senufo carver. It may represent a female 'spirit spouse' or Blolo bla. Each man or woman is said to have a spirit spouse residing in the other world that they communicate with in their dreams. Should the spirit become angry or jealous it is advised to make a carving of it in order to offer it jewellery, oils and other gifts in hope of its cooperation. Since beauty is held to be necessary for the spirit's effectiveness in assisting its human counterpart with marital or fertility problems, the figures have elaborate hairstyles and textured bodily scarification. Here scars are clearly visible on the belly, chest and face.

The three whisker-like radial scars on the cheeks of the sculpture are echoed on the cheeks of this Senufo man, photographed about thirty years ago. Among the Baule, this typical Senufo mark was associated with slavery since the Baule at one time exploited the Senufo as slaves. Therefore, the mark was regarded as something undesirable and unattractive but, in an odd twist of logic, one which could be applied to a Baule child; if a Baule woman had several children who died young, her next born was given this scar so Death himself would not be attracted to it, thus helping to ensure his or her survival.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England