Double Plank Figure with Raised Arms

Dogon or Tellem peoples (?)

Not on view

Vertically oriented, this wood sculpture is composed of a series of layered rounded-edged parallelepipedal volumes that emerge in relief from a plank-like base. The work’s decisive vertical and slender configuration is accentuated by its comparatively shallow width and depth. While the geometric forms may initially suggest a fully abstracted representation, at closer inspection, we can identify the contours of a central stylized figure that is standing with both arms raised. The figure projects in relief from a larger and more abstracted plank-like anthropomorphic form that echoes the raised arm gesture, creating a double image (Ezra 1988: 57). This foundational figure tapers at one end to a point while at the other it culminates with an inverted U-shape that suggests its extended arms (see for instance 1978.412.481). In contrast to the linearity and smoothness of the sculpture’s volumes, the surface is more irregular with layers of libations covering the entire work (on Tellem patina see Mazel 2008). With its tapered base, this sculpture was presumably leaned against a wall or placed flat on the ground as in altars dedicated to the deceased family members and binu, or ancestors revered by an entire clan (Ezra 1988: 18; 57).

French ethnologist and poet Jean Laude published this work for the first time in 1973 on the occasion of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition “African Art of the Dogon” attributing it to the Tellem or Dogon peoples living in the Bandiagara Escarpment—in today’s central Mali—since the 11th century (for a definition of Tellem see: Bedaux 1974; 1988). Based on the Dogon myth of origin as recorded by French anthropologist Marcel Griaule in the 1930s, Laude interprets works such as this as representations of one-legged Nommos, or the first living creatures described as having only one lower limb in the shape of a drumstick or a fish (Laude 1973: 55; 68). Laude’s identification of this figure as Nommo reflects the centrality of this being in Dogon cosmology and his reliance on Griaule’s research as a main source. More recently, specialists have questioned interpretations of figurative sculptures as certain depictions of Nommo or as definite illustrations of Dogon cosmology based on Griaule’s recording of Dogon mythology (Ezra 1988: 21).

Within the large Tellem and Dogon corpus, this sculpture is a unique example, which distinguishes itself for its formal qualities and abstracted forms. Its singular features, however—the motif of the raised arms, the plank-like composition and the doubling of the represented figures—are important leitmotifs that are regularly found in both Tellem and Dogon forms of representation. Griaule interpreted the gesture of one or both arms extending towards the heavens (1978.412.322, 1979.206.64, 1978.412.501) as representing various aspects of Nommo’s role in organizing the universe and his relationship with Amma, the Creator (Griaule and Dieterlen, 1986: 381-85). French Surrealist writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris, who travelled in Dogon country with Griaule in the 1930s, read the same posture as a call for a connection between earth and heaven, and specifically as a prayer for rain, a precious and rare resource in the Escarpment’s arid environment (Leiris, 1933: 30). In a similar vein, Laude related this topos to the Dogon myth of origins where Nommo lifts his arms to the sky in a prayer for rain, a ritual that underscores his epithet as “Master of Waters” (Laude 1973: 68). This specific interpretation of the significance of the sculpture’s raised arms is the most commonly found in the literature, and is supported by documentation of Dogon rituals (Ezra 1988: 21). Sacrifices to bring rain are made on altars called andugo, where the officiant holds his outstretched arms over his head, making a hooking movement to pull the rain-bearing clouds closer (Dieterlen and Ganay, 1942: 36, 38). In this sense, sculptures with raised arms at once represent the ancestor’s and officiant’s powerful gesture, and are in themselves a prayer for ancestral intervention designed to bridge the realms of earth and heavens.

The formal translation of an anthropomorphic figure into this plank-like composition through highly abstracted and stylized forms is common in both Tellem and Dogon works. The fact that plank figures were found in Tellem funerary caves suggests that this motif is an ancient one and may have been created by this group first and later appropriated by the Dogon (Langlois, 1954; Fagg 1953: plate 1). This aesthetic is one where the figure seems to emerge from the plank and yet is part of the same unit, merged and inseparable. Among the Dogon, this formal strategy is found across many objects from architectural Togu na posts (1978.412.337) to performative masks. For instance, in the Plank Mask or Sirige (1977.394.52a, b), the sculptor privileged the work’s extended verticality that is further accentuated by its flatness. Danced on the occasion of funerary practices, such towering plank superstructures extending above the dancer’s face display an openwork motif repeated throughout its full extension and tapering at its uppermost end. Similarly, in the Dogon Kanaga mask (1987.74i), also worn during funerary practices, we find a comparable interest in creating height through the inclusion of a wooden flattened superstructure. In the shape of a double-barred cross, the crowing form projects upwards as an abstracted representation of a bird with white wings. While each of these sculptural forms has distinct ritual functions and aesthetic significance, their common abstracted rendition of physical bodies through flattened surfaces extending vertically points to this strategy as an important leitmotif in the Dogon corpus and aesthetic.

Unlike these masks and other plank-shaped objects, this sculpture features a double image of two standing figures with raised arms, one superimposed over the other. As Laude explains, the sculptor differentiates between primary and secondary volumes while each appears to be backed on a flat surface that extends beyond it and on which the figure takes the appearance of a relief rather than a sculpture in the round (Laude, 1973: 54). This specific formula of an anthropomorphic figure’s doubling can be found in other Dogon and Tellem works. In a comparable sculpture dated between the 16th and the 17th century in the Dapper collection (Inv. No. 0063), the sculptor used a similar strategy whereby a central male figure, here completely merged with the plank-form, is standing erect with his arms raised. A second smaller female figure is carved at its back emerging from the flat surface and replicating the same arm gesture creating a double image similar to this work. While we do not have secondary sources that address the specific significance of these mirroring figures, they may be read through Dogon cosmology as representations of Nommo, who following his creation became four pair of twins, literally multiplying or splitting into four couples of beings.

Giulia Paoletti, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, AAOA, 2018

Published references
Art of the Dogon: Selections from the Lester Wunderman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kate Ezra. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York 1988 Fig. 17

Dogon. Dapper Museum, Paris, 1994, p.203 Jean Laude. 1973.

African Art of the Dogon: The Myths of the Cliff Dwellers. New York: The Brooklyn Museum and Viking Press, no. 21.

Further reading
Bedaux, Rogier. “Tellem and Dogon material culture”, in African arts (Los Angeles), 21, 4, (1988), pp.38-45, 91.

Bedaux, Rogier. “Tellem, reconnaissance archéologique d'une culture de l'Ouest africain au Moyen Âge : les appuie-nuque,” Journal de la Société des africanistes, 44, 1, (1974), pp.7-42.

Dieterlen, Germaine, and Solange de Ganay. Le Génie Des Eaux Chez Les Dogons. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1942.

Fagg, William Buller. The Webster Plass collection of African art: the catalogue of a memorial exhibition held in the King Edward VII Galleries of the British Museum, 1953. London: Trustees of the British Museum.

Griaule, Marcel and Germaine Dieterlen. 1986. The Pale Fox. Chino Valley, AZ: Continuum Foundation [1965].

Langlois, Pierre. Arts soudanais: Tribus dogons. Bruxelles et Lille, 1954.

Leiris, Michel. L'afrique fantôme. Paris: Gallimard, 1933.

Mazel, V., Richardin P., Debois D., Touboul D., Cotte M., Brunelle A., and Walter P. 2008. “The Patinas of the Dogon-Tellem Statuary: A New Vision through Physico-chemical Analyses.” Journal of Cultural Heritage, 9, pp. 347-353.

Double Plank Figure with Raised Arms, Wood, sacrificial materials, Dogon or Tellem  peoples (?)

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