The Dogon kept their sacred sculptures in caves in the cliff face, 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 arrival of 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. Art historians have traced a stylistic continuity between the art thought to originate from these pre-Dogon societies through to the diverse substyles of the Dogon, who arrived on the Bandiagara around the fifteenth century.
Several attributes of the present figure relate to the pre-Dogon cultures of the escarpment, most notably the female subject, depicted with a fleshy body, thick, muscular legs, and pendulous breasts. According to Leloup, "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" (Leloup, ed., Dogon Statuary, Strasbourg, 1994, p. 126).
In the absence of written history, little is known about the precise meaning of Djennenke and early Dogon iconography. Assuming continuity in oral traditions between the present-day Dogon population and the Djennenke, their territorial predecessors, we can transfer our understanding of iconography within the spiritual belief system of the successors. A distinctive and frequently-rendered subject of the Dogon corpus is a single standing figure with raised arms, a posture usually interpreted as a gesture of prayer—an effort to link earth and heavens—and in particular, an appeal for rain in the arid environment of Dogon country. Leloup writes: "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" (ibid., p. 127). 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 (ibid., pls. 2, 7 and 16)—as well as in most of the (historically later) Dogon styles.
The stylistic features of this figure have convinced scholars to attribute the its origin to the east of the Bandiagara plateau, in a substyle coined Tintam by Hélène Leloup. She argues, "The choice of the Tintam name to characterize a style, rather than that of the region—Bondum—is partly due to the historical importance of this village, and also because its site, on a rocky outcrop at the end of a winding road […] has remained animist, whereas the other large village in the Region, De, has been Fulha since the 15th century" (ibid., p. 163).
The Tintam school of sculpture is distinguished for the originality of its style and iconography, which mixing the influences of the communities that have settled there. Here, "the large-scale muscular, realistic, energetic body" is representative of an indigenous component, while the chequered ventral scarification pattern reveals the influence of the Djennenke culture and the fan-shaped scarification at the corner of the eyes reveals the influence of the Songhay (Ibid., p. 164). The shorn coiffure, arranged in three sections on the forehead, is peculiar to the Tintam style. Two other figures display a very similar construction: one in the Barbier Mueller Museum, Geneva (fig. 1), and another in the Reitberg Museum, Zurich (fig.2). Also related are a group of three other Tintam statue of related style: one the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, another in the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde of Cologne, and the one from the former Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, now at the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington (ibid., pls. 101, 102 et 103).
These six statues assume a similar posture, with raised arms, imploring their ancestors for that element on which life depends. Their nudity likely evokes "a man appealing to superior powers and, as he ought to before entering the altar's enclosure, the Hogon, Binu or Chief of the Ginna, had to remove all his clothes except for a belt" (ibid., pl. 101). The sensitivity of the features and the powerful balance of the composition are compounded by the perception of movement bringing the vertical dynamics to life, in particular in the bending of the elbows and the scale of the flat hands.
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