Djennenke Hermaphrodite Figure, Pre-Dogon People, Mali, ca. 11th - 14th century
Léon Fouks, Poitiers
Loudmer, Paris, April 24, 1997, lot 56
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, acquired at the above auction
Bernard de Grunne, Masterhands, Brussels, 2001, p. 48, cat. 5
Heinrich Schweizer, "The Soninke Hermaphrodite from the Gross Collection," Sotheby's, New York, African and Oceanic Art from the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, May 15, 2009, p. 20, fig. 1
The magnificent hermaphrodite figure from the Kunin Collection belongs to a rare but distinct Pre-Dogon style. Sculptures in this style 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 Leloup (1994: 111 et seq.) refers to the creators of these statues as "Djennenke," 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 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, Djenné-Jeno, 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 to 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."
Djennenke 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 Grunne (2001: 36), this scarification motif identifies the figures as representations of Djennenke "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.
II. The Kunin Statue
The Kunin figure belongs to a group of four closely related hermaphrodite figures. In his discussion of the closely related figure from the collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm (fig. 1), Schweizer (2014: 27) notes: “Three of [these figures, including the Kunin statue] were identified by Grunne (2001: 46–48, cats. 3–5) and attributed to a Master of Ireli, a term of convenience based on the name of the village in which one of these figures was collected in 1954. This appellation is misleading, as the sculptor or sculptors in question would certainly have lived and worked in a place far away from Ireli, presumably in the proximity of Djenné-Jeno proper, centuries before the figure arrived in Ireli. The fourth figure of the group [fig. 2] was identified by [Schweizer] and formerly belonged to the American artist Chaim Gross and his wife Renee (see Sotheby’s, New York, The Sculptor’s Eye: African and Oceanic Art from the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, May 15, 2009, pp. 18–21). Today, this sculpture is in the collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.”
And Schweizer (2014: 29) continues: "The four figures share general body proportions with wide pelvises and narrow shoulders. Other attributes include the shape of the breasts with ridged nipples, to be interpreted either as jewelry or ritual scarification; a rectangular amulet suspended from the neck, possibly containing a page of Qur'an; the elliptical shape of the head; the form of the beard; the angular C-shaped ears; a certain number of horizontal rows of scarification marks between the eyes and the ears; and the oval protruding mouth with the tongue between the lips. While the figures undoubtedly were created by artists from the same workshop, there are enough stylistic differences to call the authorship of a single artist into question. Little is known about the precise meaning of the hermaphrodite figures. Assuming continuity in oral traditions between the present-day Dogon population and their Djennenke predecessors, we can extrapolate our understanding of contemporary Dogon iconography to interpret the Djennenke figures. According to Dogon belief, perfection derives from the reunification of what is separated. The dualism of human gender is therefore perfected through the unification of man and woman. The male contains the female who contains the male, and so forth. Hermaphrodites are said to represent both male and female primordial ancestors of humankind." 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: that of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (see Fig. 3).
Djennenke figures are found in major institutional collections, including: the aforementioned hermaphrodite figure in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, previously in the Renee and Chaim Gross Collection, sold at Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 2009, lot 9; a hermaphrodite 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 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).