Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Figure: Pair of Balafon Players

18th–early 19th century
Dogon peoples
Wood, metal
H. 15 7/16 x W. 5 3/4 x D. 6 1/2 in. (39.3 x 14.6 x 16.5 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 350
These two figures are depicted playing the balafon, a type of xylophone composed of a series of wooden slats attached to gourd resonators. Balafons are uncommon in Dogon communities, and it is believed that this sculpture may have come from Mételli, one of the few Dogon villages known to incorporate the instrument in ceremonial life. It has been suggested that this specific work depicts musicians playing at the funerary rituals of a hogon, the spiritual and political leader of the community, and that the work itself was likely exhibited at such times. On these unique occasions, the instruments played are special balafons known as gingiru.

The work may also refer to a series of events related in the epic narratives surrounding the formation of the Mali empire (ca. 1230), many of whose inhabitants migrated to villages such as Mételli in subsequent centuries. According to these oral histories, a balafon player had a central role in the defeat of the Soso kingdom and its invincible ruler Soumaworo. In a ruse, Mali's ruler Sundiata Keita sent his sister Sologon and the court musician Bala Fasséké Kouyaté to Soso as spies to discover the source of Soumaworo's power. Through Sologon's beauty and Kouyaté's masterful balafon playing, they learned Soumaworo's secret and Keita defeated him on the battlefield. Keita rewarded Kouyaté with the captured royal balafon of Soso. Given that balafons are typically played by one individual, the association of two figures with this instrument may be a reference to Sologon and Bala Fasséké Kouyaté, and their important contribution to the region's history.
[Henri Kamer, Paris and New York, until 1959]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1959, on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, 1959–78

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 151.

Leloup, Hélène and Philippe, William Rubin, New York, Richard Serra, Georg Baselitz, and Brunhilde Biebuyck. Dogon Statuary. Strausbourg: Editions Amez, 1994, no. 7, Plate 111.

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