Lot 9
  • 9

DOGON N'DULERI MALE ANCESTOR FIGURE, MALI Name-Piece of the Master of the Slanted Eyes, ca. 17th - 18th centuries, with 1950s restorations

200,000 - 300,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Height: 28 3/4 inches


René Rasmussen, Paris, 1950s
Merton D. Simpson, New York, acquired from the above in the early 1960s
William W. Brill, New York, acquired from the above in 1963 (Brill accession no. "27")
Michael Oliver, New York, acquired from the above
Robert Rubin, New York, acquired from the above on December 1, 1986


Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, Selections from the William W. Brill Collection of African Art, May 5 - August 31, 1969; additional venues:
Saint Paul Art Center, Saint Paul, October 23 - December 21, 1969
Tweed Art Gallery, University of Minnesota, Duluth, January 14 - February 22, 1970
The Center for African Art, New York, Likeness & Beyond: Portraits from Africa and the World, February 14 - August 12, 1990; additional venue:
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, September 15 - November 11, 1990
Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, Primitivism Revisited: After the End of an Idea, December 15, 2006 - January 27, 2007


Warren M. Robbins and Nancy I. Nooter, African Art in American Collections, New York, 1989, p. 58, fig. 16
Jean M. Borgatti and Richard Brilliant, Likeness & Beyond: Portraits from Africa and the World, New York, 1990, p. 109, cat. 31
Hélène Leloup, Dogon Statuary, Strasbourg, 1994, pl. 114

Catalogue Note

Dogon Statuary

Since Marcel Griaule's early 1930s "Mission Dakar-Djibouti", an expedition sponsored by the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, Dogon art has become one of the iconic traditions in African art history. Griaule and his colleagues made an enormous contribution to the field and published well over two hundred essays and monographs on the subject. Following the exhibitions "Art of the Dogon" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1988) and "Die Kunst der Dogon" at the Museum Rietberg Zürich in Zurich (1995), the most comprehensive exhibition on Dogon art, "DOGON", curated by Hélène Leloup, is currently on view at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (April 5 - July 24, 2011).

Kate Ezra (1988: 15) notes: "The Dogon captured the imagination of European and American artists and intellectuals in the 1930s with the austere beauty and isolation of their environment, the power of their sculpture, and the richness of their rituals, but we have still not fully understood the history and meaning of their art. The Dogon live in one of West Africa's most spectacular landscapes. Their home is the Bandiagara Escarpment, a row of cliffs stretching 125 miles from southwest to northeast, parallel to the Niger River. The steep cliffs, some of them almost two thousand feet high, are cut in massive blocks separated by natural gorges, their sharp-edged faces punctuated by caves. The cliffs make access to Dogon villages difficult, and even though the center of Dogon country is only about 90 miles from the ancient commercial city of Jenne [Djenne], visitors to Dogon country since the beginning of the twentieth century have stressed the sense of isolation and remoteness that pervades the cliffs. According to oral traditions, the Dogon chose to settle on the cliffs precisely because of their inaccessibility. They have provided a place of refuge from attacks by neighbouring ethnic groups, which over the past five hundred years have included the Mossi, Songhai [Songhay] and Fulani."

Dogon statuary is linked to "a vast body of myths pertaining to the creation of the universe, the struggle between order and disorder, and the place of mankind within it" (Ezra 1988: 16). Human figures often represented ancestors or mythical heroes such as the founders of a village or lineage. Pairs of male and female figures could also have represented the primordial couple of ancestors who founded mankind (Griaule 1948: 22).

The N'duleri Style

The most elegant and refined Dogon style originated in the center and to the north of the Bandiagara Plateau in the region of the Ndule River, or n'duleri [ri = country of]. The N'duleri Style is closely linked with the art of the ancient Djenne empire (Djennenke, aka Soninke) and presumably is a direct result of the Songhay invasion in the 15th century and the ensuing Djennenke diaspora. For a historic account see Leloup (1994: 115).

Leloup (1994: 165) notes: "We know that when the western part of the Plateau was ravaged, the Djennenke sought refuge in the east after having hidden the majority of their goods in the steep-sloping villages of the N'duleri Sanaberi region [...]. Floods followed by droughts, provoking epidemics during the 16th century, prevented the refugees from regaining their ancient habitat and they stayed in these mountains, bringing their civilization to the [indigenous] Tombo.

"Due to numerous sources that favored agriculture, the relatively flat area crossed by the Yame N'dule river permitted a certain lifestyle that induced the development of a more refined civilization than on the mountains where survival demanded constant efforts. The emergence of an affluent class encouraged the establishment of sculptors (who had followed the Djennenke chiefs) and their workshops.

"Certain clothed and scarified sculptures derive directly from Djennenke art [...]. Other sculptures [like the Rubin Statue] are more representative of an evolution, with an absence of clothing, a decrease in grid-shaped scarifications, which are more discreet and less pronounced the further one goes west. Crafted with care, they represent tall and thin human beings, always with an elegant hairstyle which varies according [to] the workshops, and, above all, they have a characteristic trait, the close-set eyes [...]. This style, which seems to have reached its peak in the 18th century, is a condensation of the classical art of the north - realism and force - with a suppleness, an elegance, not found elsewhere, completely opposed to the [Dogon] sculpture on the southern cliff, which is very constructed, cubist, abstract."

The "Master of the Slanted Eyes"

In the study of the history of African art, the notion of the individual artist was not introduced until 1935 when Hans Himmelheber identified nineteen artists from Ivory Coast in his groundbreaking Negerkünstler (Negro Artists). Two years later, the Belgian art historian Frans Olbrechts identified a body of work created by "The Master of the Long Face of Buli," referring to a now famous Luba carver active in the 19th century. Subsequently, the identification of authorship and workshops has become an increasingly important focus of African art history. Following the methodologies established in ancient Greek and Medieval art history, the identification of an artist's body of work is based on stylistic and contextual evidence, and often names of convenience are used as a result of the ignorance of the artist's actual name.

It was in 1994 when Hélène Leloup suggested in her major work Dogon Statuary that the male figure from the Rubin Collection and a female figure today in the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Musée du Quai Branly inv. no. "70.1999.9.2", dation of Hubert Goldet, 1999; published in Kerchache 2000: 95) are works by the same artist whom she called the "Master with Slanted Eyes" (Leloup 1994: 166 with pls. 114 and 115). In the original French version of her book, however, Leloup uses the term "Maître des yeux obliques" which translates "Master of the Slanted Eyes." Subsequently, two additional female figures were identified as works by this artist or his workshop: a single female figure previously in the collections of Emil Storrer and Charles Ratton (published in Bassani 2005: 188, cat. 72a) and a maternity group previously in the collection of Hubert Goldet (published in de Ricqulès, Maison de la Chimie, Collection Hubert Goldet, June 30, 2001, lot 88; see also Loudmer-Poulain, Drouot Rive Gauche, Paris, December 16, 1978, lot 4).

All four figures are believed to be of great age and have been dated to the 17th or 18th centuries (see Bouloré in Kerchache 2000: 95; Bassani 2005: 191; de Ricqulès, Maison de la Chimie, Collection Hubert Goldet, June 30, 2001, lot 88). The extraordinary conditions at the Bandiagara Escarpment, a stable and dry environment, are conducive to longterm preservation of wood objects and therefore these dates are plausible.

The surviving works attributed to the Master of the Slanted Eyes are all fragmentary due to the erosion of the wood (not surprising in light of the proposed age of these sculptures) as well as ritual scraping in the case of the Storrer-Ratton figure. The female figure in the Musée du Louvre is missing its proper right leg below the hip and its proper left leg below the knee. The Storrer-Ratton female figure is missing both shoulders, the entire proper right arm except the wrist, the proper left arm except the forearm, parts of the navel, and has significant losses on buttocks and legs. The maternity group previously in the collection of Hubert Goldet is missing the infant (except parts of the thighs), the mother's entire proper right arm, her proper left arm below the elbow, her proper right knee, and both feet. The Rubin figure, missing its proper right arm below the shoulder and its proper right leg below the hip as well as the navel, is the only figure from the group to remain intact on one continuous side from the top of the head down to the ankles. Thus only in the case of the Rubin figure was it possible to reconstruct missing elements as mirror images of the surviving parts without danger of misinterpreting the original artistic concept. The reconstructed parts of the Rubin figure are easily identifiable by comparison of the different color tones of the wood and were not intended to be disguised.  The reconstruction was undertaken in the 1950s, presumably under the direction of René Rasmussen.

The Rubin Statue is deeply patinated and exudes an oily substance, attesting to generations of ritual use. As de Grunne (1991: 92) notes: "Anthropomorphic sculpture is involved in a number of Dogon rituals. [... These sculptures] 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." Of the three other figures by the Master of the Slanted Eyes only the female figure in the Musée du Louvre shows this kind of patina which indicates that both figures served a similar ritual function and possibly come from the same context. This and the closer stylistic proximity of both sculptures vis-à-vis the rest of the group support Leloup's argument that both figures are indeed works by the same artist and not just the same workshop as Bouloré (in Kerchache 2000: 97, note 6) seems to suggest. Indeed, it is conceivable that the male figure from the Rubin Collection and the female figure in the Musée du Louvre originally belonged together as a pair, representing the primordial couple from which, according to Dogon belief, all mankind descended.