Female Figure with Mortar and Pestle

Date: 16th–early 20th century

Geography: Mali

Culture: Dogon peoples

Medium: Wood, iron

Dimensions: H. 22 1/4 x W. 4 3/8 x D. 6 1/8 in. (56.5 x 11.1 x 15.5 cm)

Classification: Wood-Sculpture

Credit Line: Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1979

Accession Number: 1979.541.12


This female figure is depicted engaged in an essential daily activity, using a mortar and pestle to pound the millet that is a staple of the Dogon diet. The figure has a powerful, muscular physique; her flexed arms and legs indicate the energy with which she is wielding the pestle to crush the grain beneath. Her face and head are quite detailed, and the artist has painstakingly reproduced the pattern of the woman's plaited hair. The closely spaced almond-shaped eyes, wide nostrils, pursed lips, and prominent chin are characteristic of many Dogon sculptures.

The work may serve as a means of memorializing the contributions of a woman during her lifetime. In Dogon society, at the time of an individual's death, his or her life is celebrated through long orations commemorating the work accomplished in the field and home. In such speeches, women are likened to a favorite wooden stirring stick that has been worn down because of its extensive use, a reference to the endless work that they perform for the benefit of their families. This particular sculpture, which depicts a woman engaged in typical domestic labor, may be the visual equivalent of such an oration. Placed on a family ancestral altar, it would have been an enduring statement of recognition for the work the deceased performed during her lifetime, a means of preserving indefinitely the words of gratitude spoken at her funeral.

This work of art may have other connotations as well. A major tenet of Dogon thought is that one thing may have any of several meanings depending upon a viewer's level of knowledge and life experience. Millet and other cereal grains feature prominently in Dogon beliefs about the origin of the universe and the creation of humankind. It is possible that this work, in which grain is centrally alluded to, may also be inspired by these core principles of existence.