This intriguing and powerfully-carved object is a house post, carved by the Dogon people of the Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali. It is one of several such items that are carved with beneficial symbols, but which in themselves have a more secular purpose. It is essentially a gradually-widening post, with a forked apex in the form of a V. It is adorned frontally with a snake, crawling up the post, and a female human figure standing on a tiny ledge, her legs slightly bent, her hands folded over her pelvis. Above her head are horizontal incised circles and lines, then a pair of prominent breasts, then a further band of geometric patterning. The surface of the wood is aged, and it seems to have been extensively used in a domestic environment. The precise significance of the iconography is obscure, but the fertility associations of the woman and the breasts are obvious.
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. 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 also believed to have advanced astronomical skills, including knowledge of the fact that Sirius is a double star (which didn’t become apparent to astronomers with telescopes till the later 20th century). Due to the high concentration of people in some areas of the escarpment, they have developed a social system based around the concept of “sewa” – essentially a balance of social harmony where all classes and groups recognise, thank and recognise the value of all the others. 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, nommos and unidentifiable individuals that have maternity 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. They are also renowned for their skilful production of jewellery and other metal objects. Rock paintings are carried out on behalf of boys undergoing the circumcision process.
The language of Dogon iconography is written into all of their material culture. Dogon artistic heritage is primarily sculptural and anthropomorphic, and most objects in the western world are sculptures rather than masks (as these are highly important in Dogon society and are not usually sold to westerners). Most of the 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 represent males, females, hermaphrodites, nommos (ancestral spirits), animals and a range of mythical beasts which are variously seen as ancestors, talismans and guardian figures. 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 Oghol style, Tintam, 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.
This is a striking and powerful piece of adorned secular art from one of Africa’s greatest artistic traditions.