Lot 13
  • 13

Dogon-Tintam Seated Male Figure

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • Wood, ritual patina
  • Height: 24 1/4 in (61.5 cm)


John J. Klejman, New York
Howard and Saretta Barnet, New York, acquired from the above on January 24, 1962


Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Africa: the Art of a Continent, June 7 - September 29, 1996


Very good condition for an object of this type and great age. Marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, weathering and wear throughout consistent with age and use. Repaired breaks to forearms. Chip to nose has been reglued. Shallow old loss above proper right eye. Stable age cracks throughout as expected. Small hole drilled in underside for C14 sampling. Fine dry aged patina with traces of ritual materials on the figure.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The sculptural tradition of the Dogon people is among the oldest and most iconic in the canons of African art. This caryatid stool, a tour-de-force example of Dogon statuary, depicts a priest figure mid-trance during a ceremonial musical performance. In its rarity and refinement, the sculpture showcases both the skill of Dogon artists and the importance of cosmology and mythology in Dogon culture. The Dogon people reside in a rocky and arid region of the Western Sahel on the Bandiagara Escarpment, a majestic run of sandstone cliffs that slices across present-day central Mali between the Niger River and the Burkina Faso border. Rising over 1500 feet in sections, the Bandiagara is one of the most dramatic land formations of sub-Saharan Africa and provided a natural protective barrier against foreign incursions as well as natural shelters for many works of art that the culture produced. Defying both gravity and a harsh climate, the Dogon thrived in this unforgiving environment and constructed entire villages in the steep cliff face along the escarpment.

Partly due of their inaccessible location, the Dogon and their traditional lifestyle remained largely undisturbed by Westerners until the well into the twentieth century. In 1931, on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti sponsored by the musée d'ethnographie du Trocadéro, French anthropologist Marcel Griaule led a small group of ethnographic researchers into Dogon country and undertook an exhaustive study of its history, culture, and religion. Griaule’s field data on Dogon mythology and oral tradition and his observations about the Dogon way of life would form the core of the scholarly literature on the Dogon. While Griaule published exhaustive accounts about the art historical context and ceremonial function of masks with Dogon society, his documentation of statuary revealed frustratingly little information, a gap in scholarship which many scholars, including Michel Leiris, Kate Ezra, and Hélène Leloup, have attempted to address in later decades.

Leloup and Alisa LaGamma, both renowned scholars of African art, classify this type of priest-musician sculptures as Tintam style, named after a village in the Bondum region situated in the northeastern part of the Bandiagara Escarpment. Remote even compared to other parts of this isolated sector of the continent, the region around Tintam witnessed an influx of Mande migrants from the south toward the end of the sixteenth century. According to Leloup, the morphology of Tintam sculpture is characterized by realistically and energetically rendered muscular forms, usually containing a light sacrificial and aged patina,1 all features which are exemplified in the present work. Compared to the more cubistic and geometric forms common in statuary from southern Dogon country, Tintam style sculptures, like those of the neighboring N’duleri style, are notably more supple and elegant.

In this sensitively rendered monoxyle work, the figure of a priest-musician is represented on a caryatid stool formed by two parallel disks connected in its central axis by a cylindrical pillar that extends into the torso of the figure. Three pairs of caryatid figures with upraised arms support the stool along its circumference. The extension of their limbs and the subtle convexity of their bodies imbue the caryatids with a spring-like energy, as if to demonstrate the physical exertion needed to lift the weighty figure above. Leaning back gently in a position of meditative repose, the musician-priest commands the viewer’s attention with a sense of subdued authority. The arms and legs of the figure are carved naturalistically, resting in a relaxed position, while the upper torso, neck, and head are more geometric and angular in form. The grace and tenderness of the man’s facial expression project a mood of spiritual transcendence. These elements—the overall form of the stool, the bowed position of the caryatid figures, and the mood of the long-limbed figure—combine to create a marvelously dynamic sculptural composition that testifies to the skill of its anonymous artist.

Replete with ritualistic symbols and mythological references, Dogon statuary is inextricably linked to the cosmogony of its creators and cannot be understood separate from its social, historical, and cultural context. On this type of sculpture in particular, scholars have proposed persuasive interpretations of its iconography. In her landmark study on the Dogon in 1994, Leloup states that the “bottom disc [of the stool] represents the earth and the top represents the sky”,2 a claim echoed by Ezra. Leloup also suggests that the motif of the caryatid stool appears to have originated in southern Dogon country before spreading to the Tintam and N’duleri regions.3 The pairs of caryatid figures, situated at three cardinal points around the stool, possibly allude to the pairs of Nommo twins created by Amma, the God responsible for the genesis of the world. Although Dogon mythology recounts four pairs of Nommo twins, only three are represented here, which could refer to the fact that Amma punished one pair of the twins for misbehaving and disrupting the order of the universe shortly after its creation.

The figure on top of the stool is the likeness of a hogon—a priest of the ancestor Lebe, one of the eight original ancestors in Dogon oral tradition and the first one to die—or binu—a priest-like religious authority who is believed to possess the power of communicating with binu ancestor spirits, “who lived in the mythic times before the appearance of death among mankind”.4 Due to the centrality of ancestor cults in Dogon cosmogony, hogon and binu figures held a very high social status within their communities. Just as the caryatid pairs beneath the figure serve as intermediaries between the parallel disks symbolizing the sky and the earth, the priest-musician on top of the stool functions as a conduit between the spiritual and mortal realms. The positioning of the priest-musician’s hands suggests that the figure is activating an instrument, likely a percussion device. During religious ceremonies, priests held a sacred stone in their right hand with which they struck another stone or a bell in their left hand. In order to communicate with ancestor spirits, the priest-musician would enter a trance-like state while they played this instrument. This very transcendent moment during the ceremony is the precise tableau captured in this sculptural composition, one that would have been followed by chants and dances.5 On the thighs and buttocks of the priest-musician, the surface of the wood shows a darker patina than the rest of the sculpture, which, given the religious significance of the piece, suggests the application of sacrificial materials.

The corpus of Dogon musician-priests, especially ones that depict the figure mid-trance, is exceptionally small. Two other closely related examples of seated Dogon priest-musicians are in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see fig. 1) and the musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal (see fig. 2), respectively. Interestingly, in both these examples, the legs of the musician-priest extend emphatically to the bottom disk of the stool, acting in part as supports for the stool. In the present lot, instead of using the legs as elements of support, the sculptor has created an open space beneath the thighs and a subtle curvature in the limbs to project a sense of liveliness, as if the priest-musician might rise out of his trance at any moment. Instead of caryatid figures, the carved supports in the Met and Montreal examples feature zoomorphic creatures that, according to Dogon mythology, also functioned as intermediaries between the spiritual and earthly worlds. Whereas the Met and Montreal stools are assertive in their symmetry, the Barnet priest-musician contains an expressive grace and refinement that embodies the richness of the sculptural and mythological traditions of the people who created it.

1 Leloup, ed., Dogon Statuary, Strasbourg, 1994, p. 129
Ibid., p. 74
3 Ibid., n.p., pl. 128
4 Ezra, Art of the Dogon: Selections from the Lester Wunderman Collection, New York, 1988, p. 19
5 Leloup, ed., Dogon, Paris, 2011, p. 270