Dogon Wooden Sculpture of a Man with Raised Arms

SKU PF.4472
Circa

20th Century AD

Dimensions

18″ (45.7cm) high x 4.25″ (10.8cm) wide

Medium

Wood

Origin

Southwestern Mali/Burkina Faso

Gallery Location

USA


 

This extremely detailed and well-rendered sculpture of a standing male with arm(s) upraised was made by a master carver of the Dogon group, Mali. The piece is unusual in terms of its dynamic composition, for while figures with arms upraised are not uncommon – the pose is associated with the Tellem people, local predecessors to the Dogon, and is believed to represent an appeal for rain – they are usually far more schematic than this example. The proportions are also unconventional, with long, powerful legs, large genitalia, solid hips, a rather short torso and very long arms raised above the head, which is naturalistic and compact while slightly elongated. The figure is naked, but is seemingly extensively scarified with hatching and zigzags from the chest to the groin. The raiment extends as far as a square amulet with cruciform adornment, a matching belt with multiple panels, an anklet on each ankle, and triple sets of armlets and bracelets. While masculine, the figure may be intended to be hermaphrodite on the basis of the rather full chest, although this may have been an affectation of the carver. The head is small and perfectly proportioned, with a domed pate, a long nose, naturalistic eyes, a pursed mouth and a fan-shaped beard connecting ear to ear. The patina is encrusted and irregular, implying long usage and probably the application of libations. The meaning of the piece is uncertain, although it is most likely to be a notable Hogon (shaman), or perhaps a figure from Dogon mythology. If it is intended to be a hermaphrodite, it may be a nommo – an ancestral newt-like creature said to be at the genesis of the Dogon culture. The jewellery and scarifications are unusually ornate, and it is certainly more derived than the standard Tellem figures. It is carved in the style of the Tintam subgroup from the NE area of the Dogon area, which are noted for their naturalism and careful study of proportions.

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 beautifully rendered piece is a Dogon masterwork. It 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.

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