This charming sculpture of two seated human figures was made by the Dogon of Mali. The piece is a block oblong integral base supporting a low bench-like seat. Upon this are seated a male and female, the male with his left arm around the female’s shoulders. They have traditional Dogon proportions, with short legs, long torsos and elongated arms. Their shoulders are squared; the male’s chest rendered as a single block while the woman has prominent breasts; both have columnar abdomens with marked navels. They have outsized heads atop columnar necks, with high, crested coiffures/headwear. The facial features are not dissimilar, with pouting mouths, long noses and round eyes under sharp, incised brows. The female is perhaps more serene than that of the male, and the male’s headwear is hatched more strongly. The significance of the piece is rooted in Dogon mythology, as – like most African groups – ancestral couples featured heavily in their creation myths, and were revered as gods in their own right. The surface is glossy and burnished, implying a long history of handling and usage, probably by the hogon (i.e. shaman) of a large Dogon group.
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.
The refinement of the features and the carefully-controlled proportions suggest that it was made by the Nduleri subgroup of the western end of the Bandiagara escarpment. It displays well, and is an elegant and refined piece of art, and a credit to any collection.
- (PF.4364 (LSO))