AN ICON OF DOGON STATUARY
By Victor Teodorescu
History of art is doubtless an account of forms as they appear in time. In the sense of Plato’s aesthetics, for instance, among all kinds of forms, beauty should be set apart because it is above all other forms. This which reflects beauty to its highest degree attains an iconic status. An icon then falls out of any time frame and thus transcends history.
Undoubtedly, the work of a master carver, the present Dogon maternity group can be invested with an iconic status. In historical terms, it was produced at the apex of Dogon culture, while in aesthetical terms it transcends all attempts at chronology. She is timeless by virtue of the ultimate synthesis accomplished between prototypical forms – those rooted in the archaic Pre-Dogon cultures of the Djenne and Djennenke people - and those of innovation rooted in a worldview brought about by the expansion of Dogon culture.
THE DOGON WORLDVIEW
Like all major forms of art of the past, Dogon art also emerged primarily out of deep religious needs and in order to serve high religious purposes. In this sense Dogon art objects were viewed as materializations of mythic events, characters and ideas supported by a cosmogonic narrative. Dogon culture itself was very likely a complex network of signs and correspondences in which no clear distinction was drawn between man-made and natural objects, and in which beliefs, activities and their consequences were all inextricably linked through the overwhelming power of myth. In this context Dogon art objects were either placed in shrines or used in rituals. Figurative sculpture specifically appears in connection with shrines that every lineage or clan possesses. According to their purpose and the needs they reflected a great variety of shrines existed: personal and family altars, rain-making altars, hunters’ shrines, market altars, cumulative shrines, ponds, stones and caves designated as sacred. Among the individual altar types the most important are those dedicated to actual deceased members of the family, called either vageu or yaupilu, or those dedicated to mythical figures and called binu. In both cases the importance of the shrine derives from its cosmogonic dimension, the connection it has with some mythical event at the beginnings of time, and eventually the direct link it establishes to both historical and mythical ancestorship. This mythical link is often the primordial figure of Nommo, the first living person created by Amma the creator of the universe. Among the various types of ancestors worshipped are the original ancestors of mankind and the various binu, ancestors who lived in mythic times, turned immortal and eventually revered by an entire clan. These ancestors are all directly linked to Nommo according to Dogon cosmogony. In fact, one can say that the proliferation of binu and other altars has at its origin the myth of Nommo, his primordial multiplication through twins, his resurrection and ultimate resuscitation and sharing of vital force (nyama).
A UNIQUE ICONOGRAPHY
The importance of Nommo in Dogon art is thus fundamental. Nommo is at the origin of the eight mythical twins, ancestors of mankind, by consequence almost all human images are related to Nommo and in particular Dogon images of women with two children allude to Nommo and the mythical primordial twins. This fundamental level of interpretation is then enriched only by the particular ritual context and setting in which the objects appear.
The present maternity illustrates a kneeling woman holding twins on her lap. Images of women with children abound in Dogon art and a whole range of representations exists: mother standing or kneeling with just one child either with the back cradled in one of her arms or sitting on her lap or stretched across her torso, or mother with twins sitting on her lap or clinching to her back. On its own, the kneeling posture assumed by this female figure corresponds to how Dogon women commonly fall into a kneeling pose at funerals as a sign of grief and gratitude towards the deceased.
In the context of many Dogon figures being placed on ancestral altars it is likely that figures of kneeling women are intended to preserve this gesture and the emotion it incarnates. While the kneeling pose corresponds to a common pattern, this is not the case with the way the twins are displayed in perfect symmetry on their mother’s lap and most naturally turned towards the outside, while the mother gently holds them with her hands. The architectural rendering of this maternal group is unique. The proportions of the twin figures suggest fully formed, though tiny, adults. If we look at the large female figure with respect to her volumes, planes and relative scale, she becomes an edifice. Apart from the naturalism of her hands, the mother does not interact with the twins, nor do they interact with each other. She is an anthropomorphic temple, like the Great Sphinx, with two guardians at the portal.
“Bandiagara […] homeland of the Dogon. No more than three thousand kilometers square, it has yielded a remarkable series of carved wooden figures spanning ten centuries. Their preservation is a phenomenon unique in sub-Saharan Africa, attributable to the climate, the stone-and-sand environment, and the relative inaccessibility of the dry caves in which they were deposited”. (H. Leloup, Dogon Figure Styles, African Arts, vol. 22, no. 1, Nov. 1988, p. 44)
The Bandiagara plateau became known to ethnographers only after the Dakar-Djibuti Mission (1931-33) and thanks to the information collected by Marcel Griaule and his school. Before that date Dogon art was hardly represented in private or public collections. The mission and subsequent visits introduced the large public to essential knowledge about Dogon culture and life and contributed largely to the better knowledge of their art. Dogon art is now understood as a unique accomplishment, the complex result of various and successful cultural overlapping between early cliff cultures such as that of the Tellem people and those of later migrant populations such as the Dogon or the Djennenke. Even if it is esteemed that the first Dogon people settled on the Bandiagara plateau in the 15th century it is obvious now that the ramifications of Dogon art belong rather to a cultural complex rooted in multiple cultural entities that eventually reached maturity and relative unity towards the 17th and the 18th century. The present maternity can be dated around this specific period.
Fundamental for the understanding of its essential place in the history of Dogon art is specifying the link it represents between archaic prototypes which function as the deep roots of Dogon art and the incredible formal innovations that were to come throughout the expansion of Dogon culture. This specific understanding is based on the connection the Bandiagara plateau bears to the culture of the inland Niger delta and specifically to the city of Djenne. And it is most obviously in the northern part of the Bandiagara plateau that one recognizes the influence of the sculptural tradition of this area. It is here that the N’Duleri to which the present maternity figure can be attributed were influenced in their artistic production by the neighboring Djennenke. Originally from Djenne, the Djennenke fed the city starting in the second half of the 15th century. The Moroccan invasion of 1591 most probably contributed to their massive migration to the plateau. Carbon-14 dating has nearly proven that wooden sculptures found in the Pignari area of the Bandiagara plateau, where the Djennenke settled, are contemporaneous with the sophisticated terracottas (dated between the 8th and the 16th/17th century) made prior to the Songhai siege of Djenne, and they share the same style. This demonstrates the cultural continuity between Djenne and the north of the Bandiagara plateau and establishes the direct influence the Djennenke people exerted on the N’Duleri people. The kneeling pose, the iconography of mother with twins are elements one finds in the Djenne terracotta or in the superb Djennenke wooden sculpture illustrating a mother with twins sucking on her breasts (see ill. above).
Once the link is secured between N’Duleri and Djennenke art, when analyzing the present maternity one also recognizes an aesthetics that goes beyond the specific naturalism of its prototypes. Beyond the sensitive refinement of its forms, the salient breasts, the beauty of the face and coiffure, the geometry of its compact anatomy lies the sense of abstraction, a pleasure for an architectonic construction whose orderly spirit can only be the accomplished consequence of a new and different artistic approach. In the light of all arguments considered, historical and aesthetical, the present maternity with twins emerges as the accomplished creation of a master carver, a chef d’oeuvre of canonical beauty and a gateway between the realism, the naturalism of a splendid archaic art and abstraction, the geometric monumentality of a new world view.
de Grunne, Bernard, Ancient Sculpture of the Inland Niger Delta and Its Influence on Dogon Art, African Arts, vol. 21, no. 4, August 1988, pp. 50 – 55
Dieterlen, Germaine, Masks and Mythology among the Dogon, African Arts, vol. 22, no. 3, May 1989, pp. 34 – 43
Ezra, Kate, Art of the Dogon, Selections from the Lester Wundermann Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988
Leloup, Hélène, Dogon Figure Styles, African Arts, vol. 22, no. 1, November 1988, pp. 44 – 51