Mali; Dogon peoples
H. 28 3/4 in. (73 cm)
Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1977 (1977.394.15)
This sculpture gives eloquent expression to the shared and symmetrical responsibilities of men and women in Dogon society. The virtually identical forms of the male and female protagonists in this visual commentary accentuate the parity of their subtly distinctive roles. The two figures share lucid, graphic, and repeated elongated vertical elements with only infrequent differences. For example, on the male figure, a beard extends the chin while the female figure wears a labret, an ornament in the lip. Additionally, where he has a smooth torso, she has elongated breasts that droop from the suckling of multiple children. On the reverse side, the female figure carries a baby on her back, the male a quiver. She is responsible for child care, he for providing sustenance. He has one hand on his genitals and the other protectively draped across her shoulders and resting on her breast. This emphasizes their mutual roles in procreation and nurturing. Male and female are connected to one another by his gesture, but additionally are articulated as discrete units. This approach reflects Dogon attitudes toward marriage as a partnership of independent equals. This balanced duality is also a central tenet of Dogon mythology.
The small, crudely depicted figures at the base of the stool may represent the supportive role the ancestors play in the lives of the living. Their rough angularity contrasts with the elegance and stature of the elongated figures above. The particularly high level of finish of the work as a whole, its smooth surfaces, intricate detailing in the face and hair, and lack of sacrificial material indicate that this sculpture was not intended for an ancestral shrine, but rather was displayed at funerals. This interpretation is supported by the presence of iron ornamentation in the hair, ears, and on the wrists of the figures, since iron adornment is historically worn or placed next to the dead during Dogon funerals.