The Essence of Tribal Art: An African Masterpiece

Female figure, Village of Damagari, Bandiagara, Mali Dogon, Djennenke style, 10th – 11th century, Wood, height: 210 cm (82 in). Quai Branly Museum, Paris.

Carved from a single piece of wood, this figure is a masterpiece of Dogon Djennenke art and also one of the most important tribal sculptures from Africa.

The term ‘Djnnenke’ describe works produced by a network of related cultures that developed in the Inland Niger Delta region between the 12th and 17th century. This piece, dated to around the 11th century, is exceptional not only for its great age but also its powerful aesthetic. Though masculine in appearance, the figure is ostensibly female, as seen from the two pendulous breasts resembling those of women who have breast-fed many children. The female aspect is accentuated by two little figures – a male and a female – carved in high relief on both sides of her navel as though they have burst forth from her belly.

The figure’s left arm is raised (the right arm is missing) and her head is elongated in keeping with the general shape of the sculpture. Her eyes stare out imperiously, a looked reinforced by her projecting eyeballs. She is clearly a woman of high status, a point the artist conveys by the jewels she wears. These include three long necklaces with an attached snake-pendant symbolizing a guardian spirit, five bracelets on the biceps, and seven more on the wrists – seven being the addition of the “female” four to the “male” three, thus symbolizing the union of the sexes desired by God.

The two small figures on the navel are also symbolically significant. The left figure – a male – has arms crossed in a sign of listening and one knee on the ground in an attitude of a son greeting his mother. The kneeling female on the right has her hands placed on her thighs, a posture of respect for authority and also resembling a worshipper making an appeal of some kind.

All in all, this work makes a powerful statement that women in Dogon culture are the culture bearers of society as well as a tribute to Dogon women’s role as caretakers, responsible for teaching tradition and oral history from one generation to the next. Ultimately, then, this tribal sculpture, similar to the art of many other tribal cultures of the world, is not simply art for art’s sake.

Leave a Reply