This powerful figure of a man seated upon an unidentified animal was carved by the Dogon, who live on the Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali. The representation is very distinctive. The animal is comparatively small, shaped as a horizontal column with short legs, hips/shoulders rendered as angular blocks and a downward-pointing head. The neck is recessed, the head bearing small, high ears, a slit mouth and low-relief incised eyes. The rider is sat upon the rearmost third of the animal, his legs drawn up and his feet pressed into the animal’s flanks. The human’s proportions are traditionally Dogon. The torso is leaning so far backwards as to be almost reclined, with a protuberant abdomen and notable male genitalia. The arms are long and slender, and raised above the head (slightly flexed at the elbow). This pose is traditionally associated with Tellem sculptures, which in turn are believed to represent an appeal for rain. Jewellery – armbands and bracelets – are rendered as incised lines. The features are very finely rendered, with sharp brows, a linear nose and a plate-like beard that encircles the head from side to side. The wood surface is well-used, but not encrusted. This figure was believed to represent nommo – ancestral spirits that most resemble hermaphrodite giant newts – but the lack of amphibian characteristics make this unlikely. As it is also not a hermaphrodite, it is likely instead to be a human character from a Dogon myth.
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. 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 is a powerful and impressive piece of Dogon sculpture. It displays well, and is a striking and attractive piece of African design.
- (PF.3622 (LSO))