This elegant curvilinear sculpture was made by the Dogon of Mali. It represents a thin, curved-back man who has been carved into a naturally rounded piece of wood. The face is turned to right, with a large, pennate beard. The shoulders are a solid block from which the almost emaciated frame curves away evenly. The penis is disproportionately large and thick.
The Dogon people of the Bandiagara escarpment, Mali, have been described as the most studied and least understood tribal group in Africa. Their culture is exceptionally ancient and complex. They moved to this area in the 15th century, escaping slavery at the hands of Islamic groups, and displaced a number of tribes that were living on the escarpment at the time. They are artistically prolific, making masks/figures in stone, iron, bronze/copper and of course wood, as well as cave/rock painting. While Islam is prominent in the Dogon area, their art is defiantly figurative, a tradition which of course is technically banned under Islamic law.
There are 78 mask forms still in production (and numerous extinct variants), which have applications including circumcision, initiation, funeral rites (damas) and the commemoration of twins, snakes, ancestors (nommo) and hogons (holy men). Decorated secular items such as headrests, granary doors/locks and troughs are also known. The Dogon took inspiration from Tellem (lit. “we found them”) sculptures recovered from caves on the escarpment, and may be the stylistic inheritors of the Djenne tradition . Most figures were not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly kept by the spiritual leader (hogon) away from the public eye, in family houses or sanctuaries.
The Dogon are obsessed with their ancestors, both historical and mythical. They dedicate altars to their memory, and install pieces that represent real or fictional beings such as the semi-human “nommo” that feature at the very genesis of the Dogon people. This is likely to be one such, a real or mythical ancestor, which was revered on a Dogon altar. This is a large and impressive piece of African art.