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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Dogon Sculptures : Dogon Wooden N'Duleri Statue of a Woman Pounding Grain
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Dogon Wooden N'Duleri Statue of a Woman Pounding Grain - PF.5114
Origin: Southeastern Mali/Burkina Faso
Circa: 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 62.5" (158.8cm) high x 12.25" (31.1cm) wide
Collection: African Art
Medium: Wood
Condition: Very Fine

Location: United States
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This outstanding and very large sculpture of a woman pounding grain with a long pestle and mortar is a notable masterpiece of the Dogon group, Mali. It displays traditional and innovative design features. In the former category, the head is a classic rendering in what is probably the Nduleri style (from the western end of the Dogon range), with a narrow cross-section, small, lidded eyes, a pointed chin/beard (if the latter, the figure is a hermaphrodite), an elongated nose and a thin-lipped mouth. Beneath the neck, traditional elements include the unitary shoulder/breasts block, a slightly protuberant abdomen, the bent knees and a columnar neck. However, the hair – arranged in a trefoil skull- cap form with dorsal queue – is unusual, as are the comparatively elongated proportions of the figure, the fact that the length of the legs and arms match the torso, the thick necklace and the triple bracelets and armlets on each side. The size of the figure implies that it occupied a social rather than domestic role, and the patina that has developed on prominent parts implies that it was an important object in the eyes of the society that produced it. The identity of the personage portrayed is, as ever, mysterious. The chore she is doing is fairly standard for Dogon women, but her jewellery, her patina and the care with which she has been rendered – as well as her size – obviates against a standard representation, or a piece designed for sale. It could be a prominent female ancestor from Dogon mythology, or perhaps a specific social notable. Equally, the slightly hermaphrodite characteristics may imply that it is a nommo, one of the peculiar newt-like ancestors that are said to have founded the Dogon.

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 even oral legends are among the most involved in Africa, not least because the polity is in fact essentially artificial, comprising various sub- units that were grouped together on the basis of propinquity under the colonial administration. The Dogon live on the Bandiagara escarpment, Mali, a 150-mile-long eminence that supports a population of between 250,000 and 450,000. They have been described as the most studied and least understood tribal group in Africa. 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 (millet, barley, onions and various animals), patrilineal, polygamous and have a society arranged around specialist trades. They are excessively prolific in terms of artistic production, not least because they have mastered all the main materials that are used in traditional African art; 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. Furthermore, their social structures are extremely complex (and variable – see below) and are socially signalled through numerous material signalling systems. Their profound resistance to Islam – which once sought to enslave them – is striking in light of their comparative proximity, and can be seen in their defiantly figurative artworks which are of course banned under Islamic law.

Their diversity has posed certain challenges to western art historians. There are around seventy-eight different mask forms still in production (in addition to numerous extinct variants), which are used in ceremonies for circumcision, initiation, funeral rites (damas), cultic procedures (the Dogon have numerous cults that pertain to twins, as well as spirits including mono, sigui, Lebe [crocodile], binou and amma) and other seminal events. They also produce numerous sculptural forms, of males, females, hermaphrodites, nommos (ancestral spirits), animals and unidentifiable individuals that have maternity, apotropaic and ancestor functions. The scale of the population and the size of the area in which they live have resulted in considerable social and artistic diversity. Noted variants include the Master of Ogol style, Tintam, Kambari, Komakon, Bombou-Toro, Wakara, Niongom, Kibsi and Nduleri figures, all of which can all be differentiated stylistically on the basis of their mode of execution. Their discovery of ancient sculptures by the Tellem people in caves along the base of the escarpment led to the incorporation of certain stylistic conventions (i.e. human figures with upraised arms in what is believed to be a prayer for rainfall) into more recent Dogon works. Most sculptures are not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly kept by the spiritual leader (Hogon) away from the public eye, within the houses of families, or in sanctuaries. They are also renowned for their skilful production of jewellery and other metal objects. Organic- looking rock paintings are carried out on behalf of boys undergoing the circumcision process. Even secular items are endowed with iconographic designs that bestow benedictions upon the user or owner; notable examples include headrests, granary doors/locks, house- posts and troughs.

This large and outstanding piece was probably kept by the Hogon and displayed for specific ceremonies. It displays well, and is an elegant and refined piece of art, and a credit to any collection.

- (PF.5114)


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