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HOME : Islamic Art : AS Collection Consignment : Dogon Wooden Face Mask
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Dogon Wooden Face Mask - PF.3498 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Mali/Burkina Faso
Circa: 18 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 12" (30.5cm) high x 6.375" (16.2cm) wide
Catalogue: V19
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Additional Information: AS

Location: Great Britain
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This stern and beautifully-carved mask was made by a master carver of the Dogon group, Mali. It is of elongated form, with a domed head and a sharp chin, and with a central ridge from the apex of the forehead, running into the nose, lending an angular mien. The nose is very long and thin, ending with right-angled flanges above the large, prominent lips. The eyes are oval and protuberant, with a depression around the perimeter, three further incised concentric lines and a pierced centre so that the mask could be worn. The coiffure is a horizontal band encircling the head and backwards-swept linear, textured ridges. The ears are backwards-pointing hollow- back triangles. The surface of the piece is decorated with incisions at the edges of the eyes (trefoils) and a cloverleaf-like pattern in small incisions on each cheek. It is otherwise unadorned, except for an encrusted, glossy patina that extends across the whole piece with extra usage wear on the higher points. The interior of the mask is also worn, with uneven texturing of the wood. The mask was evidently once worn with a costume as the holes around the perimeter have some wear. Insofar as can be ascertained from use wear, damage (insect activity – now halted – and the wear on chips and scratches), this is a mask of considerable age.

The Dogon people of the Bandiagara escarpment, Mali, have been described as the most studied and least understood tribal group in Africa. Their history, technology, cultural wealth, art and oral legends are exceptionally complex, owing to their long history and also their internal variability along their home range. They moved to this area in the 15th century, escaping the Mande kingdom and slavery at the hands of Islamic groups, and displaced a number of tribes (including the Tellem and Niongom) that were living on the escarpment at the time. They are agriculturists, patrilineal, polygamous and have a society arranged around specialist trades. They possess advanced astronomical skills, and knew that Sirius is a double star well before this fact was noted by telescope-wielding western astronomers. They are excessively prolific in terms of artistic production; masks/figures in stone, iron, bronze/copper and of course wood are all known, in addition to cave/rock painting and adaptation of more modern materials. While Islam is prominent in and around the Dogon area, they have remained defiantly figurative in their artistic expression, a tradition which of course is technically banned under Islamic law.

Their output has posed certain challenges to western art historians, as there are around seventy-eight different mask forms still in production (in addition to numerous extinct variants), which have applications ranging from circumcision to initiation and funeral rites (damas). Some masks are only used once every sixty years (sigi funerary festivals), while there are also masks and figures that are directed towards regard for twins, snakes, ancestors, nommo, hogons (holy men) in addition to an array of other cultic procedures with various fertility, maternity and ancestor-worship functions. Even secular items are decorated with iconographic designs that bestow benedictions upon the user or owner; notable examples include headrests, granary doors/locks, house-posts and troughs. They are also renowned for their skilful production of glass and metal jewellery and related objects, and paint rock shelters on behalf of boys undergoing the circumcision process. To further confuse matters, the scale of the population and the size of the area in which they live have resulted in considerable artistic diversity. Noted variants include the Master of Oghol style, Tintam, Komakon, Bombou-Toro, Wakara, Niongom, Kibsi and Nduleri figures. The Dogon took inspiration from the Tellem (lit. “we found them”) sculptures recovered from caves on the escarpment, notably human figures with upraised arms in what is believed to be a prayer for rainfall. Most figures were not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly kept by the spiritual leader (hogon) away from the public eye, in family houses or sanctuaries.

This mask is most similar to the hunter (ibibi bobongo) and monkey masks, though it is unlike both in some respects. This may be a function of stylistic variability, or even a hitherto unexplored tradition, but the fact that it is obviously fairly old may mean that it reflects a now-extinct tradition.

This is an impressive masterwork for the discerning collector of African art.

- (PF.3498 (LSO))


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