South Beach artist Senufa celebrates her femaleness
with silver works of proud, strutting, flashing females
Senufa's silver women are a flash of herself— funky, earthy and real.
If they could dance off that chain around your neck, you know they'd be flaunting and strutting.
Just like Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Woman, Senufa's women don't make apologies. Their butts bulge, their thighs billow, their breasts boast.
You hear Angelou's echo in Senufa's images:
It's in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips, I'm a woman, Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That's me.
That's pretty much Senufa, too.
She's as much a hot South Beach artist as a dedicated single mom. And whether she's being interviewed for Vogue or gloating about her kids' report cards, she is devoted to the art of being a woman.
Her signature work is her Real Women collection — the busty, hippy, modern goddesses she makes into necklaces, bracelets and earrings. They sell in boutiques and galleries throughout South Florida, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico.
Senufa, 31, who works from a small studio at the South Florida Art Center at 810 Lincoln Rd., began designing the Real Women in the late 1980s, as she began to discover herself.
"I had grown up trying to figure out who I was, trying to fit in. People still try to define me. She's a 'black' artist. She's a 'white' artist posing as 'black' woman. She's too 'this', or not enough of 'that'. I found out along the way I am just a woman, and I don't apologize for it. My work celebrates being a woman. In whatever form that takes."
Senufa grew up in Coconut Grove, a kid with a white mother, a black father and a few understanding friends. A kid who dropped out after failing the tenth grade. A kid who never went to college because she had no idea what she wanted to be. A kid who married at 18, had two children by 21, and divorced by 26.
"The most important thing you could hope for in your life is to learn to be who you are," she says.
While she was figuring that out, she discovered she was an artist.
"First I had to learn how to get out of my own way. I had to stop thinking 'I could never do that.' I had to learn to trust myself, "Senufa says.
Her parents — both artists — named her Seche Juillet-Senufa Salley. The Senufa part was inspired by the Senufo tribe on the west coast of Africa, known for its artists.
But all of that foreshadowing didn't hit home for Senufa until after she was married and working as a waitress in Coconut Grove.
Senufa's parents divorced when she was 5. That's when she moved to Miami from Taos, N.M, with her mother, Judy Rivera Rosso, a sculptor and writer now living in Italy.
Senufa discovered her own calling in the mid-1980s, after she had a falling-out with her husband and returned to New Mexico to spend some time with her father, Abu Salley, a jeweler, painter and furniture designer.
"He put a jeweler's saw in my hand and he said, 'Make earrings.' I had no idea what I was doing. I just started drawing arches and squares. I never imagined I could make jewelry and sell it," Senufa says.
But people started asking where she got those first simple earrings; the fact that anyone noticed inspired her.
"When I came back to Miami I went to the library and got every book they had on jewelry-making and just taught myself," she says.
Her first art show was a small sidewalk fair on Lincoln Road in the late 1980s. Her first sale: an eye-popping necklace in shimmering sterling silver - linked images of the life cycle of spiders.
"Somebody just plopped $600 on the table for it. I couldn't believe it," says Senufa, who now regularly sells her more elaborate pieces for that much.
A year after that first art show, Senufa was selling her funky silver pieces - earrings, necklaces, bracelets - out of Star Hagenbring, a now-defunct boutique on Espanola Way in South Beach. Her work took off. Even Gloria Estefan came in to buy Senufa's Real Women as holiday gifts.
In 1993, she moved to the South Florida Art Center, and then Absolut Vodka commissioned her to design pieces for a five page Absolut Senufa ad in South Beach magazine as a celebration of local art.
"People love her jewelry," says Victoria Sutherland, manager of Masterpiece Galleries at Mizner Park in Boca Raton, which carries Senufa's work. "Women who are very self-assured gravitate toward her Real Women. You can see she is a very strong and spiritual woman just from looking at her jewelry."
An integrating theme
The message in Senufa's art is the same one she teaches her kids - Tyler, 11, and Belinda Pearl, 10: Believe in yourself above all else.
I tell them just because an adult says something, that doesn't mean you accept it. You stand up for what you believe, because there are some stupid adults out there," says Senufa, who recently moved from a South Beach apartment to a house in Belle Meade to give her kids a "saner" place to live.
She's proud of her kids because they're proud of their heritage.
"Their father is German-Irish. They are very white, but the other day kids at school were using the word 'nigger' and my son went up to them and said 'Don't use that word, I'm African American.'"
Senufa credits the South Florida Art Center for offering artists like herself affordable studio space on the Beach (she pays less than $500 for rent and utilities) even as real estate inflation pushes many independent artists out.
"I've been there four years, supporting myself and my kids solely on my art, thanks to the South Florida Art Center. But commercialism is changing [Lincoln] Road. It's less supportive of artists today.
It's sad to see galleries turning into gift shops all around you."
Senufa is contemplating leaving the Beach and setting up shop at home - to get uninterrupted time to work. At the South Florida Art Center, she keeps her studio open to the public.
"If people arc going to see more of my work, I think I'm going to have to do this," she says, "I don't really get to spend any time goofing off. I just work all day and then go home to be with my kids. There is really nothing glamorous about my life."