Kneeling Female Figure with Three Children
- 15th–early 20th century (?)
- Dogon or Tellem peoples (?)
- Wood, organic matter
- H. 13 x W. 3 x D. 2 5/8 in. (33 x 7.6 x 6.7 cm)
- Credit Line:
- Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1977
- Accession Number:
The subject of this intimately-sized sculpture is a kneeling female figure. The woman is shown sitting on her knees with flexed feet and hands resting on her thighs. The posture’s grounded and meditative quality is accentuated by the compact rendition of the lower body whose center of gravity is concentrated around the circular base. In contrast to the slim lower limbs, the sculptor elongated and enlarged the figure’s torso. In the cylindrical articulation of the upper body, we identify the woman’s small breasts, rounded belly, and three children, one resting diagonally across her abdomen and two vertically extended along her back. With its straight spine and chin at a slight angle, the sculpture visualizes the fortitude of a mother who regally supports her offspring and the humility of a figure who invokes higher forces.
In the absence of scientific testing, this work is broadly dated to sometime between the 15th and early 20th centuries and is attributed to the Tellem-Dogon peoples. European authors have conducted research among the Dogon peoples in the Bandiagara Escarpment (Mali) since 1903, when sculptures such as this started to enter Western collections. In their oral accounts to Western scholars, the Dogon recounted that they had migrated to the region in the 15th century. At their arrival, they discovered that another population, the “Tellem”— literally, ‘we have found them here’—had lived there since the 11th century and eventually disappeared for unknown reasons. More recently, ethnographic and archeological investigations have confirmed the existence of a ‘Tellem’ population, one that pre-dated and was distinguished from the Dogon. Through radiocarbon analysis of objects and burial sites, specialist Rogier Bedaux delineated a chronology of the populations who lived in the Bandiagara Escarpment: Tellem (11th-15th century), Tellem-Dogon (15th-17th century), Dogon (17th-20th century). While this specific sculpture has yet to undergo scientific testing, it probably belongs to the second phase (Tellem-Dogon) when these two groups lived side-by-side influencing each other’s customs and artistic practices. Indeed, this sculpture displays formal qualities found in both Tellem and Dogon works. For instance, its patina and stylized forms can be seen in earlier Tellem objects, whereas the motif of the kneeling woman with thin limbs recalls later Dogon statuaries.
The figure of the kneeling mother holding her children has been an important subject of religious sculpture in the region. While we do not have written or oral accounts from the Tellem populations, field research conducted during the early 20th century among the Dogon may provide some clues on this sculpture’s original significance. Dogon patrons commissioned similar maternity figures to express a prayer to be blessed with children. Placed on altars, these sculptures would function as a surrogate for their patron and as an expression of their prayer. Yet, while these works typically represent a female figure holding one or two infants, in this specific case, the sculptor included three: one in the front and two identical ones on her back. The pairing on the back suggests that they are not only siblings but also twins. Twins are frequently represented in sculptures among different ethnic groups across the continent including the Yoruba and the Luba. Among the Dogon, the depiction of twins has often been described as a reference to a myth of origin recorded by anthropologist Marcel Griaule in 1948 in his conversation with the elder Ogotemmêli. In this Tellem-Dogon piece, the sculptor combines imagery of motherhood and twinness producing a particularly charged object, one that speaks to the patron’s intimate yearning and a society’s beginnings.
The sculpture’s surface also provides important information concerning its ritual use. Carved from one piece of wood, the sculpture is fully covered with a thick application of organic matter. This grainy substance homogenously covers the statue revealing—rather than concealing—its volumes and forms. In their research on the chemical composition of such applied surfaces, scientists have found that they are composed of animal blood and millet. While both Tellem and Dogon sculptures feature thick patinas, their different colorations and textures suggest that there were variations to these practices. These semi-liquid substances could for instance be applied either through hand-coating or by dipping. In some cases there are multiple layers indicating that this procedure was repeated for individual sculptures. Among the Dogon the patina played the role of receptacle for nyama, or life force. Without this substance and its ritual appliance, the statue would be a mere piece of wood devoid of any protective power. The patina thus becomes a crucial component in appreciating this sculpture and its ceremonial significance.
Giulia Paoletti, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Postdoctoral Fellow, 2017
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Peek, M. Philip. 2011. Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Van Beek, Walter E. A. 1988 "Functions of Sculpture in Dogon Religion." African Arts 21, no. 4, pp. 58-65, 91.