A MAGNIFICENT SONINKE HERMAPHRODITE FIGURE, Mali, circa 12th-15th Century
Galerie à la Reine Margot, Paris
Chaim and Renee Gross, New York, acquired from the above in 1968
Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., The Sculptor's Eye: The African Art Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Gross, 1976 (additional venues: Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, November 5, 1976 - January 2, 1977; Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, March 27 - May 1, 1977; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, May 17 - July 17, 1977)
The Soninke Hermaphrodite from the Gross Collection
The magnificent hermaphrodite figure from the Gross Collection is one of a small group of wooden figures that were found in caves at the southwest side of the Bandiagara cliff in central Mali. All figures appear to be of great age, and several were tested by the C-14 method and produced dates ranging from the 10th to the 15th century. The earliest known date (975 A.D. +/- 45 years) comes from the large statue with raised arms in the Musée du Quai Branly, previously in the Hélène and Philippe Leloup Collection (published in Leloup 1994: pl. 2), tested in 1995 by the ETH Zurich, no. '15080'; for more test results cf. de Grunne (1991: 84, together with id. 2001: 39-42).
Today Soninke figures are found in major institutional collections, including: the famous figure of a horse-rider in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (inv. no. '83.168', published in de Grunne 1991: 78, fig. 1); a standing figure, wearing a skirt and holding a ceremonial dolaba over its shoulder, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Gift of Lester Wundermann, ibid.: 84, fig. 11); a figure with similar posture in The Menil Collection, Houston (Van Dyke 2008: 71, cat. 20); another standing figure in the Dallas Museum of Art, (previously in the Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection, ibid.: 84, fig. 12); and a hermaphrodite figure with the same arm posture as the offered lot in the New Orleans Museum of Art (Bequest of Victor Kiam, Leloup 1994: pl. 13).
Sculptures in the style of the Gross Soninke are extremely rare. They are believed to have been created by the population of the region to the southwest of the Bandiagara cliff in Mali, at a time before the current Dogon population settled in this area. While Hélène Leloup (1994: 111 et seq.) refers to the creators of these statues as "Djennenke," Bernard de Grunne (1991: 86, 92 and id. 2001: 37) calls them "Soninke." Apart from this titular difference, both authors use the same criteria for identification and have emphasized the close stylistic and iconographic links between the wooden figures in question and the terracotta figures commonly referred to as "Djenne." They both agree that the terracotta figures and the wood figures are remnants of the same culture.
Leloup (1994: 118) notes: "Djennenke wooden sculptures are slightly taller than the average Dogon sculpture and they are rendered with greater virtuosity and realism. They resemble the terra-cotta sculptures from the Pondori region [...]. Their stylistic similarities are certain for they share common morphological features: elongated body, thin nose, protuberant eyes. [...] Although these statues are sculpted in different materials, they also share one distinct common trait: tegumental scarifications, signs of membership to one and the same clan." Elsewhere Leloup (loc. cit.: 116) observes: "The wooden statues found on the [Bandiagara] Plateau are very different from Dogon-Mande statues because of their realistic conception. Stylistically, they are remarkably similar to the terra-cotta statuettes found in archaeological digs in the Pondori region, especially in Djenne. [... However, these] two types of sculpture (wood and terra-cotta) can be attributed to one and the same civilization because they have the same age and display similar stylistic characteristics – especially the scarifications – which are determinant in identifying the artists but which are placed in different parts of the body."
As the lifespan of wood depends on the climatic circumstances of its preservation, it is uncommon for African wood sculpture to survive for centuries. The group of Soninke sculptures in question presumably owes its preservation to the extraordinary conservatory conditions at the site of their discovery within practically inaccessible caves of the southeastern cliff of the Bandiagara Plateau in central Mali. The figures were remote from insects and rodents, in a stable and dry environment that allowed the wood to survive for centuries.
Leloup assumes that the wooden statues were placed inside the caves when the Djenne Empire was invaded by the Islamic and iconoclastic Songhay in the 15th century. On January 18, 1469 the capital of the Djenne empire, Djenne-Jenno, was defeated in "immense bloodshed" (Barth 1855, vol. 4: 595, quoted after Leloup 1994: 115). The surrounding chiefdoms allied with Djenne were pillaged by the invaders. To safeguard their religious carvings from destruction by the Songhay, the Soninke leaders fled to the Bandiagara cliffs, taking their most precious possessions with them, including their important ancestor statues. There they seem to have hidden the figures with the hope of retrieving them at a future date. The Soninke, however, never returned, and it was not until the 1930s that the caves and their contents were rediscovered by the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule (1898-1956). The dates suggested by Leloup correspond with the presumed settling date of the Dogon in the area, as de Grunne (1991: 82) notes: "Indeed, both oral traditions and archaeological excavations conducted by the University of Utrecht have established the date of arrival of the Dogon in the Bandiagara Cliff after A.D. 1500."
Soninke figures are more naturalistic and elegant in comparison with the more geometric and cubistic approach taken by Dogon artists. The face is elongated and narrow, with a fine nose, protruding eyes, and a rectangular block of multiple horizontal lines of scarification marks leading from the eyes to the ears. According to de Grunne (2001: 36), this scarification motif identifies the figures as representations of Soninke "aristocrats" from the Kagoro clan, which, in the 13th century, had fled the Dogon-Mande kingdom due to dynastic controversies, as well as the increasing influence of Islam.
De Grunne (2001: 46-48, cats. 3-5) identified a group of three hermaphrodite figures of a very similar style, which he attributed to a workshop he called "Master of Ireli," based on the name of the village in which one of these figures was found. These figures share several features, including: the general proportions of the body with wide pelvis and narrow shoulders; the shape of the breasts with ridged nipples, possibly a ritual scarification; a rectangular amulet suspended from the neck; the vertical oval shape of the head, the form of the beard, the C-shaped ears and the same amount of horizontal rows of scarification marks between the eyes and the ears; and the oval protruding mouth with the tongue between the lips.
The Soninke Hermaphrodite from the Gross Collection, showing these characteristics, can be attributed to the Ireli workshop. While all four figures wear bracelets, only three are wearing anklets. Only one other figure, holding a ceremonial dolaba over its shoulder, is showing a zigzagged, incised horizontal motif on the beard like that of the Gross Soninke Hermaphrodite (see Fig. 2). Different from the other comparable figures is the hairstyle of the Gross Soninke, which displays a shaved head with a long strand of hair on top tied into a bun. According to Leloup (1994: 119), this hairstyle, a "bun on top of the head, with the hair wrapped by ribbons (accentuating an elongated silhouette) – was traditional for Nono [another Soninke clan] chiefs. It corresponds to that on the oldest statues, whose style is the purest." For other examples wearing this hairstyle, including the two famous monumental figures in the collections of the Musée du Quai Branly and the Musée Dapper, cf. Leloup (1994: pls. 1, 2, 7, 8, 14, and 16).
The swollen abdomen, more or less emphasized in all four figures, can be interpreted as a sign of pregnancy. The posture of the right arms can be observed in one other figure from the Ireli workshop (see Fig. 1), as well as in a third figure in the Dallas Museum of Art (previously Gustave and Franyo Schindler Collection, ibid.: 84, fig. 12).
Iconography and Use
Little is known about the precise meaning of the hermaphrodite figures. Assuming continuity in oral traditions, however, between the present-day Dogon population and their territorial predecessors, the Soninke, we can transfer our understanding of this iconography within the spiritual belief system of the successors (Dogon) into the one of the predecessors (Soninke). Hélène Leloup notes: "Among the most spectacular sculptures, we find the mysterious hermaphrodites. To understand these statues, one must clarify the Dogon concept of perfection deriving from the re-union of what was separated. For young initiates, these statues expressed the necessity of the dualism existing in nature, the social differentiation between men and women, the distinction between the sexes – dualism one had to transgress in order to attain perfection and continuity in life. We have here the illustration of a typical Dogon concept: the male contains the female who also contains the male [...]. These atypical beings are said to represent the 'eight primordial ancestors, born of the couple fashioned by God [who] could inseminate themselves, each being double and of both sexes' (Griaule 1948: 22), principle that disappeared after the incest and the birth of the human couple." Based on this interpretation, the Soninke Hermaphrodite from the Gross Collection appears to be a likeness of a proto-human primordial ancestor or a mythical hero.
The deeply patinated surface of the Gross Soninke Hermaphrodite shows remnants of an oily substance, a sign of a long ritual use. As de Grunne (1991: 92) notes: "Anthropomorphic sculpture is involved in a number of Dogon rituals. [... They] served to obtain help, to produce rain, or to bring harm to an enemy. In other rituals involving Dogon wood sculpture, worshippers would appear naked before the figure, make offerings, and pour the sacrificial blood over the statue. The worshipper could become ritually possessed by the soul of the ancestor or the spirit of the god represented in the statue."
In his 2001 essay on Soninke statuary, Bernard de Grunne (2001: 35) counted only 41 works. The Soninke Hermaphrodite from the Gross Collection, at the time known only to very few scholars and without any previous publication history, was not included in the count. One of the major examples of its genre, the appearance of this magnificent effigy at auction and its addition to the published corpus of Soninke statuary are landmark events.