One of Africa’s most dramatic and magnificent landscapes is the Bandiagara Escarpment, an imposing chain of sandstone cliffs which surround a vast plateau in central Mali. For millennia this geological formation has provided an ideal defensive position for human settlement and has nurtured some of Africa’s earliest and most sophisticated civilizations. Since the 15thcentury it has been home to the Dogon people, the creators of the iconic figural sculptures that today form the centerpieces of every major African Art collection. The Dogon kept their sacred sculptures in caves carved into the cliffs, thereby preserving them for hundreds of years. Radiocarbon dating of wood sculptures from this region shows that a small number of the very earliest examples that survive in fact pre-date the Dogon. Stylistic evidence supports the assumption that these extremely rare works belong to a lost culture which heavily influenced Dogon style, and was likely associated with the ancient empires of the Djennenke or Soninke peoples.
The monumental female figure from the Allan Stone Collection is one of these extremely rare and early works. Carbon-14 testing of the wood dates its creation between 900 and 1030 AD, making it one of the earliest surviving sculptures from sub-Saharan Africa. Its great age, distinctive style, bold expressiveness, and excellent state of preservation distinguish it as one of the centerpieces of the Allan Stone Collection and one of the most important sculptures from Mali ever to appear at auction.
Other examples of similar scale and iconography are in major institutional collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The gesture of upraised arms is interpreted as an attempt to link heaven and earth, and possibly as a prayer for rain.
The Proto-Dogon Statue from the Allan Stone Collection
The magnificent Proto-Dogon Statue from the Allan Stone Collection is one of a small group of wooden sculptures 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 hetherto earliest known date (975 A.D. +/- 45 years) comes from the large female 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. Grunne (1991: 84, together with id. 2001: 39-42). The C-14 date obtained from the Stone figure matches this earliest time period: 900 A.D. to 1030 A.D. (C-14 analysis, ETH Zurich, Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics, Dr. Georges Bonani, sample "ETH-51531").
Proto-Dogon figures are found in major institutional collections, including: a hermaphrodite figure recently acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and previously in the Renee and Chaim Gross Collection, sold at Sotheby's New York, May 15, 2009, lot 9; the aforementioned female figure in the Musée du Quai Branly (Leloup 1994: pl. 2); a monumental hermaphrodite figure with raised arms in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum (Leloup 1994: pl. 16); the famous figure of a horserider in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (inv. no. "83.168", Leloup 1994: pl. 10); 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, Grunne 1991: 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, Grunne 1991: 84, fig. 12); and a hermaphrodite figure in the New Orleans Museum of Art (bequest of Victor Kiam, Leloup 1994: pl. 13).
Sculptures related to the offered lot 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," others call them "Soninke" (Grunne 1991: 86, 92 and id. 2001: 37). Apart from this titular difference, all authors use the same criteria for identification and emphasize the close stylistic and iconographic links between the wooden figures in question and the terracotta figures commonly referred to as "Djenne." According to Leloup, the "Djenne" terracotta figures and the wood figures attributed to the "Djennenke" 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 Djennenke 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 Djennenke 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 Djennenke, 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 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."
According to Leloup (1994: 126), "Djennenke sculptures are different from others on the Plateau in that they include female ancestor figures. [... They] seem to represent the female ancestor of a lineage, which leads us to believe that [the founders of Djenne] possibly were matriarchal in the past."
In the absence of written history, little is known about the precise meaning of Djennenke iconography. Assuming continuity in oral traditions, however, between the present-day Dogon population and their territorial predecessors, the Djennenke, we can transfer our understanding of a iconography within the spiritual belief system of the successors (Dogon) into the one of the predecessors (Djennenke).
The Allan Stone figure features two vertically oriented rectangular grids of scarification marks on the figure's abdomen. These can be related to the scarification patterns on the chest of the figure in the Musée du Quai Branly (Leloup 1994: pl. 2) as well as on the body of the monumental hermaphrodite with raised arms in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum (Leloup 1994: pl. 16). Leloup (1994: 122) notes: "Scarifications identify one's affiliation to a clan and allow members to recognize one another. [...] The scarifications on the wood and terra-cotta statues are grid- or button-shaped, or they take the form of very small squares well aligned in rows of two, three, or four [...]".
Also of note are the figure's pendulent breasts which can be found on the wooden hermaphrodite figures in the Musée du Quai Branly and Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum (Leloup 1994: pls. 2 and 16), as well as on the three terra-cotta figures by the same artist as the Stone figure (see below). According to Leloup (1994: 127-128), this is a sign of fertility as expressed by a woman who has nurtured many children.
The most distinctive subject rendered by Dogon sculptors is that of a single figure standing with raised arms. This posture has usually been interpreted as a gesture of prayer - an effort to link earth and heavens - and it has been suggested that it may represent an appeal for rain. This iconography is an archetype found in some of the earliest Djennenke figures - including the hermaphrodite figure in the Musée du Quai Branly, the male bust in the Musée Dapper and the hermaphrodite in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum (Leloup 1994: pls. 2, 7 and 16) - as well as in most of the (historically later) Dogon styles. Leloup (1994: 127) notes: "The statues with raised arms form part of a group of statuettes of different styles found all along the cliffs: Djennenke, classical Tellem, Niongom, Komakan, to which we can add the ones mentioned by Leiris, the 'raised arm' statuettes in the caves of Yougo [...]. These figures played a role in rainmaking rites performed by all the different inhabitants of the cliffs: a cultural adaptation by osmosis responding to the chronic lack of rain along the dry cliffs."
Based on this interpretation, the Allan Stone Figure appears to be the likeness of a primordial female ancestor of a lineage praying for rain.
The deeply patinated surface of the Allan Stone Statue shows remnants of a red substance, a sign of a long ritual use. As 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."
While the red substance on the Allan Stone Statue is not blood, it clearly was associated with specific spiritual qualities and perhaps the color was a suggestive substitute for real blood. For figures with similar surfaces see three female figures in the Tintam-style: two in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, and one maternity figure in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (all three published by Homberger 1995: 69-71, nos. 28-30).
The Master of the Allan Stone Statue
Djennenke figures feature rather naturalistic body proportions in comparison to the more geometric and cubistic approach taken by Dogon artists. The face, either oval or round, is often dominated by protruding eyes. While most figures show a rectangular block of multiple horizontal lines of scarification marks leading from the eyes to the ears, some don't show this feature. Leloup (1994: 123) explains: "Not all the terra-cotta figures have scarification marks [...]. Based on archaeological digs conducted in the Niger Delta region, the terra-cotta figures with scarifications would stem exclusively from the Djenneri or its immediate vicinity, which thus circumscribes the clan represented."
Within the diverse corpus of Djennenke figurative terra-cotta sculpture exists a small group of statues without facial scarification marks: one male and two female figures previously in the Baudouin de Grunne Collection and today in the Musée Dapper, Paris (Bernardi and Grunne 1990: pls. 6, 7 & 8), as well as a fourth figure, of female gender, in a New York private collection, previously in the collection of Philippe Guimiot, which prominently featured in the exhibition Africa: The Art of a Continent at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (Philipps 1995: 491, pl. 6.4e). These four figures share a closely related style which incorporates spherical heads, bulbuous eyes, naturalistic noses above full parted lips, large ears which protrode from the head at almost a ninety degree angle, as well as in the case of the three female figures long pendulent breasts. Indeed, the four terracotta figures are stylistically so closely related that they appear to be works by the same artist.
The Proto-Dogon (Djennenke) Statue from the Allan Stone Collection, showing all these characteristics, can be attributed to an artist working in the same style and with reasonable certainty in the same workshop. However, as the statue is of still more archaic style, and the C-14 test result still earlier than the thermoluminescence results published by Bernardi and Grunne (loc. cit.), the Stone Statue can be considered as the prototypal work of this workshop. We do not know the name of its creater who was without doubt one of the most accomplished artists of his day, and whose genius survives in this centerpiece of his artistic production. In absence of another name, this artist should be called "The Master of the Allan Stone Statue."
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