Dogon Tribe, Mali
Tellem Figure, late 19th c.

wood, 115 х 12 х 17 cm
Hall 20

The people of the Dogon tribe inhabit the lands along the western belt of the Niger River, the vicinities of the Bandiagara high plateau and the rocky terrain of Mount Hombori in the northern parts of Mali. It is believed that, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, they migrated from their native places under the pressure of the Mossi Kingdoms, seeking refuge in these inaccessible mountain areas. Here they found the local Tellem people, whom they later managed to displace. The stony land and harsh natural conditions helped the Dogon remain isolated from the invasions of other peoples and to resist Islamic influence. As a result, the tribe managed to preserve its ancient customs and religious beliefs and maintain the artistic traditions of its statuary art, whose exceptional symbolism derives from a specific cosmological philosophy.

Dogon art draws its themes from myths, the complex integrity of which governs the life of both the community and the individual. The god Amma, the supreme creator of the universe embodying the life forces, plays an essential role in the religious ideas of the people of this tribe. The eight Nommos, who gave birth to the human race, are considered to be his messengers on earth and intermediaries of his omnipotent spiritual energy. The seventh of them is gifted with the skills of a blacksmith. Coming to earth, he began to perform the functions of high priest and became the main mediator in the realisation of the connection between earth and heaven, between the living and the dead. Based on this legend, cult objects are made by blacksmiths, able to control the fire only with the aid of the divine forces. In most cases, the wooden figures are dedicated to the spirits of real ancestors or of mythical creatures that people regard with great respect. They are kept in specially built altars and can be accessed only by the high priest Hogon. In the funeral processions of prominent Dogon inhabitants, they were placed for some time next to the bodies of the deceased so that their souls could pass into the afterworld through the spiritual power of the figures.

A common image in Dogon art is the hermaphroditic deity Amma, represented by characteristic gestures symbolising the various phases of the creation of the world. Hands raised high above the head signify persistent prayer to send rain over the dry earth. This type of sculptures is interpreted as a connecting element between the visible and invisible worlds. The people of the tribe believe that, by paying their deep respect to them, they will be rewarded with health, fertile land and protection. The wooden sculptures are distinguished by their simplicity and stylisation of form, which enhances their monumental impact. Clearly outlined, elongated geometric elements create a dense silhouette, creating a sense of gravity and at the same time emanating a feeling of majestic presence. The individual parts of the abstractly moulded bodies are subject to strict symmetry. These images are stylistically reminiscent of the mythical wooden figures made by the ancient Tellem group, discovered in the thirteenth century by the Dogon in small carved chambers in the caves on the slopes of Bandiagara.

Bistra Trayanova