Dogon art is found in the context of religious rituals that center on the veneration of the spirits of three types of ancestors: deceased members of one's lineage or clan; Lebe, one of the eight original ancestors of all mankind; and binu, or immortal ancestors, venerated by the whole clan. Figurative sculptures (dege) carved from wood and depicting males and females are placed on altars dedicated to these real and mythical ancestral spirits.
Figurative sculptures vary in form and imagery according to the language/dialect group; its location, on either the Bandiagara escarpment or plateau; and the carving style of the individual artist or a workshop. The identities of the ancestral spirits represented by particular figurative sculptures are uncertain because few altars have been described in detail or illustrated. Such helpful documentation is not available for this figure.
Dogon artistic conventions prevail in this sculpture, although its creator seems to have interpreted the canon in a highly individualized way. For example, while it is not unusual for the breasts or pectorals to continue the mass of the shoulders, and for the thighs to continue the mass of the buttocks, the sculptor exaggerated these forms. They wrap around the cylindrical torso that extends to the base of the stool. Dogon figures do not always actually sit on the stool but are slightly separated from it; in this figure the separation is exaggerated. According to Hélène Leloup, caryatid stools represent "the sky and cannot seat any person, no matter how powerful," and perhaps the artist sought to emphasize this point. The knees bear parallel incised lines rather than protuberances to indicate joints. Dogon oral tradition recounts that the bodies of the first humans had no joints until the first blacksmith descended from the sky and broke his arms and legs on his hammer and anvil. The joints thus formed allowed humans to hammer red hot iron, dig the land and perform other work. Following convention, the legs of the figure function as supports for the stool. Caryatids representing the nommo, the eight original ancestors, normally appear either paired or alone. In this work, only three of the ancestors are represented, an atypical representation.
It is tempting to describe this sculpture as the work of an eccentric artist who understood the Dogon canon but took liberties, much like the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. Dogon styles range from quasinaturalistic to abstract, however, and one must use caution in forming such an opinion.
Wood female figure in a seated pose rising from a circular base and supported by a central column attached to a three-legged stool whose legs are in the form of human figures (caryatid). The figure has an elongated torso, forward projecting breasts and navel and flattened projecting buttocks that wrap around the figure and lead to a pair of thin tubular legs. The arms are raised above the head and hold a circular tray which has an old repair with a large metal staple. The breaks on both hips have been repaired.
William Moore, Los Angeles, -- to 1984
Merton Simpson, New York, 1985 to 1997
African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 20-December 9, 2012; Newark Museum, February 26-August 11, 2013; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, August 23-November 30, 2014; Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, Atlanta, January 31-June 21, 2015
Gifts to the National Collection of African Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 17, 1997-January 4, 1998
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 17, no. 3.
Ravenhill, Philip. 1998. Gifts to the National Collection of African Art. Exhibition brochure, no. 3.
Robbins, Warren M. and Nancy I. Nooter. 1989. African Art in American Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 60, no. 21.