While the original context for this imposing work is undocumented, such figurative creations by Dogon masters are considered to have been commemorative in nature. Michel Leiris emphasized their role as supports for the nyama, or life force of a deceased individual. In this instance a commanding subject is defined by the emphatic bilateral symmetry and formal clarity that is characteristic of Dogon sculpture. The lower half of the composition is devoted to an expansive treatment of the seat whose two parallel but interconnected discs have been seen as metaphors for Dogon conceptions of heaven and earth. The outer band of both seat and base is embellished with a dense abstract pattern evocative of ideas of life force and power. The zoomorphic imagery that bridges them references the role of the lizard as well as the crocodile, serpent, tortoise, and rain bird as intermediaries between divinity and humanity in Dogon cosmology. It has been suggested that the protagonist of this representation may be a hogon, a village priest whose high authority was derived from his knowledge of spiritual and temporal affairs. Communion with powerful binu spirits induced in priests a trance state that may be reflected in the figure's facial expression.
During the 1950s and '60s, Henri and Hélène Kamer brought back many of the works from Mali today considered to be some of the most important examples of Dogon sculpture in Western collections and raised awareness of Dogon art among collectors and museums. At the time Robert Goldwater began leading the MPA, these works had only recently been appearing on the market and he felt in-depth research was still lacking. He nonetheless acquired essential Dogon works for the collection, from the monumental figure with raised arms on view in the permanent gallery to this masterfully carved example.
[Henri Kamer, Paris and New York, until 1962]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, on loan to Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1962–1965; Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978
Hecht, Barry, Roy Sieber, John Mack, and Tom Phillips. Africa: The Art of a Continent. London, Munich, and New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996, 87, p. 165.