This imposing piece is a Dogon maternity or – more specifically – ancestress figure. It is an unusually accomplished and well-proportioned example, depicting a woman sitting relaxedly on a stool held up by tiny caryatid human forms. The overall lines and forms indicate that it is a Bombou-Toro variant, from an area in the centre of the Dogon homeland (see below). The chest is set into a block that is continuous with the shoulders, and the arms are very elongated, holding a rattle (gourd) on the lap. The face is serene, with a sharp midline, an arrow-shaped nose and a crested coiffure with triple plaits. She also wears a small beard, suggesting that this is more of a speculative ancestor – mythological creatures known as nommo – than a specific woman. It is spectacularly patinated, implying a long life and frequent libations.
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 complex, owing to their long history and also their internal variability along their home range. 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 that were living on the escarpment at the time. They are excessively prolific in terms of artistic production; masks/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. While Islam is prominent in and around the Dogon area, they have remained defiantly figurative in their artistic expression, a tradition which of course is technically banned under Islamic law.
There are seventy-eight different mask forms still in production (and numerous extinct variants), which have applications ranging from circumcision to initiation and funeral rites (damas). Some masks are only used once every sixty years (sigi funerary festivals), while others commemorate twins, snakes, ancestors (nommo) and hogons (holy men). Secular items – such as headrests, granary doors/locks and troughs – are decorated with iconographic designs that bestow benedictions upon the user or owner. Classification is also hampered by the large scale of the population and their homeland. The Dogon took inspiration from the Tellem (lit. “we found them”) sculptures recovered from caves on the escarpment, notably human figures with upraised arms in what is believed to be a prayer for rainfall. 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.
It is not an understatement to claim that the Dogon are obsessed with their ancestors, both historical and mythical. This figure relates to a real or fictional female ancestress, including the semi-human nommo that feature at the very genesis of the Dogon people. In practical terms, it was kept in a shrine and anointed by the hogon, who would have revered it as a religious artifact. The style in which she is carved indicates an origin in the central escarpment area, and it is possible that further research could narrow this yet further, perhaps to the village from which she comes.
This is a remarkable and imposing piece of African art.