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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Dogon Wooden Equestrian Sculpture
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Dogon Wooden Equestrian Sculpture - PF.4356 (LSO)
Origin: Southeastern Mali/Burkina Faso
Circa: 19th th Century AD to 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 29.5" (74.9cm) high x 6" (15.2cm) wide
Catalogue: V22
Collection: African
Medium: Wood

Location: United States
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This powerful equestrian sculpture was made by the Dogon of Mali. The exceptional refinement of the features and the carefully-controlled proportions indicate that it was made by the Nduleri subgroup of the western end of the Bandiagara escarpment (see below). The plan is traditional, with a small oblong base, supporting a geometrically-constructed horse with a high, arched neck, pointed ears and a streamlined, block-like head with relief bridling. The rider is also deliberately disproportionate, with very short legs (and feet drawn into the horse’s flanks), a long torso, elongated limbs, a columnar neck and an outsized head. The gender is not immediately apparent, but it does not have breasts and is thus likely to be male. The torso is sectional, with the chest separated as a separate block. The head is deep from front to back yet blade-like – narrow – from side to side. It has a high dome covered with what is presumably a skullcap, and flat, rounded ears. The face is compressed, with round, protuberant eyes under sharp brows, a long nose and a circular, tube-like mouth. The underside of the chin is adorned with a horizontally-projecting blade-like beard that runs between both angles of the jaw. The patina is dark and glossy, implying extensive handling and libations.

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 Nduleri people are noted for these works, but their precise function and meaning of the figure is uncertain. What is known is that horses are among the most expensive items that can be owned by the Dogon, and that only social elites could afford them. Previous analyses of this piece identified the horse as a nommo (ancestral newt- like animal) but this is more likely to be a representation of a prestigious person mounted upon his prize acquisition. It may also represent a hogon (akin to a shaman), or a character from Dogon mythology. The reverence with which Dogon people treat the hogon is outstanding, and it is perhaps not surprising that exceptional hogons be immortalised in this manner. Whatever its purpose, however, this is a remarkable piece of Dogon statuary.

- (PF.4356 (LSO))


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