Sunday, February 2, 2014

Wood Sculptures at a Senegalese Market: Art, Value, and the Tourist's Eye

On a recent trip to Dakar, Senegal, I visited the artisanal market at Pointe des Almadies, where authentic regional art and crafts are to be had. 

Not that these cannot be found in shops (i.e., the kind with lighting, doors that lock at night, and discreet sales ladies). But in shops, arts and crafts items are carefully vetted, and they are marked up to high, commercial prices. Foreigners with experience or coaching know that similar or identical items can be found in local markets. 

But to visit the marketplace (open stalls, no amenities, proprietors who are hell-bent on sales) if you are to enjoy the advantage of better prices. You must be prepared to stand up against those badgering, aggressive vendors. You have to be willing to bargain staunchly for that better price. You should assume automatically that any item is worth half or less than  the stall-keeper's asking price. Even the price asked, however, is probably a quarter of what would be asked in the swell boutique with doors. 

In the stalls at the artisanal market, one can find many beautiful and fascinating things: djembes and talking drums; jewelry made of seeds, shells, beach glass, ceramic beads, wax cloth; paintings of village scenes; leather sandals and bags; and, above all, carved wooden items from tiny trinkets to large, free-standing sculpture.

Most of the stalls offered small carved wood objects, whatever the real focus of its inventory was. Everyone had small, rough-hewn wooden turtles: Even at "full price" they'd cost very little. Their ubiquitousness suggested that they, like a few other items, may have been made entirely as tourist trinkets. 

I discovered once I got home that several rare kinds of turtles (marine and desert) live in Senegal, and that there are companies that even take tourists out to watch loggerhead turtles lay eggs in the sand. Turtles are likely to mean more even than tourist dollars to the Senegalese. Where was the line between made-for-tourists, and shared culture?

In the shop that carried wooden sculpture exclusively, the proprietor spoke pretty good English and was willing to spend some time actually discussing his merchandise with me. He did in fact have some stunning sculptures, like a sinuous, gleaming alligator carved of ebony that hung on the wall, five feet long in its curled state. No one would consider it other than a work of art, so well made, so well designed, so spirited a piece it was. Clearly it was made by an artist—whoever that person is, living under whatever circumstances, with who knows what expectations for the sale of his/her work. The alligator was what a small museum would be happy to collect for its African Art wing. It was a carving that was wonderful on aesthetic grounds alone. Its local significance could be made as relevant or irrelevant as curators and viewers wished.

Alike but different; faces or masks?
On the other hand, there were a great many modest objects that fell into a zone between the crude turtles and the magnificent alligator—for example, carved faces that were, as far as I could tell, masks of some sort. That they were incomprehensible to me was a block to my appreciation on even a basic aesthetic level. Were they the result of any particular local need or impulse? Or were these tourist bait, designed to look like Western ideas of African carvings? 

Here I was in an artisanal market, but I was confused by a blurring of several values. What was I looking for? Authenticity in terms of tradition, culture, or use: Yes. Aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship: Of course. Yet wasn't I quick to judge anything for appearing in a stall that I thought "too touristy? Wasn't I hasty to dismiss items I considered (for arbitrary reasons) kitsch, despite their being local and hand-made? How could I know the intrinsic value of anything there, knowing nothing of its significance?

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
If it hadn't been for the obliging shopkeeper whose English was a little better than my French, I think I'd have made no purchase. I think that these seven little teak carvings opposite would have remained impenetrable to me. I'd probably have examined them one by one, tried to decide which I liked best, and decided that none was all that compelling.

The shopkeeper brought all of them down at once, then he laid them out side by side, arranging and rearranging them carefully as if he were beginning a game of solitaire. They were not individuals, but a set of seven carvings.

They are, he explained, a calendar for the illiterate of their Muslim country, each indicating one of the seven days of the week. Each day, the appropriate carving is placed vertically to insure that the household proceeds in orderly step within the community.

In the photograph above, the carvings are laid out in order, beginning with Monday. Monday has one point at the top of the head. Tuesday has two. Wednesday's more elaborate, dual pairing (two straight up, the middle two coming together) indicates the day of the week traditional for marrying. 

Thursday has four points and a clipped beard as well. The four points are not only for the fourth day, but together with the trimmed beard indicate the day for the barber, where one is neatened up for Friday—the day a man wears a hat and combs his beard to go to the mosque.

Saturday and Sunday are days to be lazy about personal appearance. The points on top are "disheveled" and by Sunday the man is wearing leisure clothes and ornaments that are represented by the folds and forms surrounding the face.

I am very happy that I bought the calendar (in teak; a similar calendar in ebony was more than I wanted to pay). I am fascinated that it is so full of ideas and that looking at it takes me to a world I wouldn't have imagined without it. It's already served what I consider one of the functions of art just by opening a door that takes me past the thing itself.

Now that I know its significance, it is more appealing to my eye than it was before. The fact that it is not finely wrought makes sense and completes its story in a satisfying way. Was it made to be used? Or was it made to sell to tourists? Should I know? Should I care? Would knowing increase or decrease its authenticity and appeal for me?

I had been given the figure on the right as a gift in
the past. Now I know it to be a Sunday
figure from an ebony calendar set.
When I visit collections of African art, I'm always amazed by the forms, colors, and ideas of representation or symbol so different from those I'm familiar with. In museums, African art is often staged in a position closely bordering on anthropology, and the work of a vast continent with myriad cultures is of necessity, though unhappily, all clumped together. 

At the artisanal market, though, I felt that I gained some minor insight into the process of collecting artifacts from a far-away culture. What is art, what is tool, and are such distinctions useful? If it's made for trade, is it less valuable? If it's common, is it less valuable, or if it's rough rather than perfected? None of the distinctions I'm used to working with—even if only to challenge—made any sense in that Senegalese market. It's a place that either requires a set of questions I haven't discovered yet, or one that I haven't learned to put away.


  1. Wonderful trip and interesting quandary. The calendar is fascinating. I'm off to Ragdale today and wish you would be there.

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  2. Thank you for the insight! I had never heard of calendar masks.

  3. So pleased to have found this page. My wife and I bought an set of ebony calendar masks on brief visit to Senegal in 1992. These have hung on a wall in a number of different homes we have lived in ever since. At the time of the purchase we were given an explanation by a young vendor of what they represented - I cannot recall the exact explanation - but it would seem to differ from yours as someone had crudely written a sequence number on the back of each mask . The sequence my calendar masks follow is different to yours - my hatted bearded man as an example is numbered seven not five for Friday. Your explanation has a credibility that I cannot dispute so I will re-arrange the sequence of my masks.

  4. Hello, I'm working on those masks in order to crate a wikipedia page on taht topic. It seems the right order is that of this image ==>
    Have a nice days
    Sincerely. Gerard

  5. Not sure the first question got through to you. So, I was in Senegal 10 or so years ago and bought the days of the week in a beach area just outside Dakar. I thought the name was Sale' pronounced Sa-lee. The days of the week are in onyx and hand carved by one of the villagers. I love them and have tried for many years to figure out the days of the week the chores were allocated and the order to hang them. Now I know 4 from your blog, but would like to know the chores for Monday and Tuesday.
    Do you know them? Or maybe someone else would know. Thanks for any help I receive.

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