This intriguing and effective minimalistic piece is an iron sculpture of a ram made by the Dogon group, Mali. This is a rather unusual representation for the Dogon, who usually specialise in anthropomorphic and equestrian sculptures. The piece is elegantly constructed, with a long body, slim legs, a long, drooping tail and an elongated neck surmounted by a gape-mouthed head with ornately curled horns. Detail is minimal, which adds to the dramatic impact of the piece.
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.
They produce numerous sculptural forms, of males, females, hermaphrodites, nommos (ancestral spirits), animals and unidentifiable individuals that have maternity, apotropaic and ancestor functions. 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. Ironworking is especially well-known among the Dogon, who usually used it for weapons but also for ritual and artistic purposes. It is phenomenally hard to work, and only the most sophisticated groups in Africa were able to have iron-workers; the trade was a profession, not a part-time occupation, and the works they produced are highly prized.
The function of this piece is uncertain. There are some references to rams and sheep being used as sacrifices in Dogon rituals, and ram heads often appear in altars and related paraphernalia. This might therefore be a representation of a sacrificial animal, which would suffice as an offering without the expense of sacrificing an actual sheep. Whatever its purpose, however, this is an interesting and sophisticated sculpture that would show well in any domestic setting or collection.