Dagon Primordial Couple
16th-19th century
Mali; Dogon
Wood, metal; H x W: 28 3/4 x 9 5/16in. (73 x 23.7cm)

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 few differences. For example, on the male figure, a beard extends the chin while the female figure wears a labret, an ornament in the lip. The female is distinguished as a nurturing mother by her full breasts. On the reverse side, the female figure carries a baby on her back, the male a quiver. She is responsible for childcare, he for providing sustenance. He has one hand on his genitals and the other protectively draped across her shoulders and resting on her breast. These gestures emphasize their mutual roles in procreation and nurturing. While man and woman are formally united in this representation, they are also articulated as discrete units. This work reflects Dogon attitudes toward gender roles as fundamentally complementary. Balanced duality is a central tenet of Dogon mythology.

The small, coarsely hewn 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 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 — suggests 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.

Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1977 (1977.394.15)

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