Altar: Female Figures, Wood, clay coating, patina (?), Dogon peoples

Altar: Female Figures

16th–early 20th century
Mali, Diop village, near Ibi
Dogon peoples
Wood, clay coating, patina (?)
H. 17 1/8 x Diam. 7 in. (43.5 x 17.8 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1962
Accession Number:
Not on view
While the purpose for which it was created is not entirely clear, the rich patina of this Dogon figural group suggests a ritual function involving repeated applications of offerings and libations. Composed of a set of eight female figures arrayed around a central core and crowned by a top-like form, this work may have once adorned a shrine or altar created for communication with the ancestors of a Dogon lineage group or other supernatural powers.

Dogon sculpture emphasizes angularity and rectilinear form: the Dogon artist who carved this altar group has reduced his subject matter to a set of simple, geometrical elements. Arms and legs are attenuated columns broken by sharp angles at the elbows and knees, while pointed cones replace breasts and protruding stomachs. Wedge-like heads display stylized, angular features and thin, cylindrical ornaments that drop from the lower lip. Compositionally, the work displays a sophisticated interplay of heavy massing and delicate openwork. Conjoined heads and torsos radiate from the central core, forming solid bodies that appear to float above graceful passages of empty space delimited by the slender lines of the limbs and facial adornments.
[John J. Klejman, New York, until 1962]; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1962–1978

Museum of Primitive Art. Masterpieces in the Museum of Primtive Art: Africa, Oceania, North America, Mexico, Central to South America, Peru. Handbook series. New York, NY: Museum of Primitive Art, 1965, no. 2.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 176.

Leloup, Hélène, ed. Dogon: Catalogue of an exhibition held at Musée du quai Branly, Paris, April 5–July 24, 2011. Paris: Musée du Quai Branly, 2011, no. 48, pp. 280–81.