In Focus

Standing female figure (1974.Sc.1)

The durable hardwood used to carve this figure indicates the tall, slender female was someone of importance or status. Sculpted with naturalistic proportions and raised dot scarification on her temples, she is elaborately clothed in an apron rather than nude, adorned with beaded necklaces, and posed standing rather than kneeling as a supplicant. She carries neither a pestle nor a water jug, conventional symbols of a woman’s domestic role. Instead, her hands appear to frame her rounded abdomen, perhaps an indication of pregnancy. These attributes suggest the figure represents a female ancestor who in life was responsible for protecting her lineage.

Radiocarbon dating analysis has dated the sculpture, attributed to the Djennenke, a pre-Dogon people of Mali, to between the 11th and 13th century CE. Its history is related to the glorious Wagadu (also called Ghana), Mali, and Songhai (also called Gao) empires, which flourished from the 8th to the 16th century CE and declined because of drought or conquest. “Pagan” villagers, choosing to preserve their cultural traditions and resist conversion to Islam, migrated south (toward present-day Senegal) and east (toward present-day Mali) to escape equestrian invaders from the north.

Peoples known today as the Dogon, and who probably had multiple origins, settled on the nearly inaccessible Bandiagara cliffs, safe from Muslim invasions. Some came from the Inland Niger Delta region, once an area of highly developed commercial centers, and settled in Jenne (also called Jenne-Jeno or Old Jenne), where large terracotta sculptures dating from the 13th to 16th century were unearthed in the mid-20th century. Depicting mounted warriors and maternity figures among other subjects, the terracottas are distinguished by distinctive bulging eyes, ovoid heads, dotlike scarification at the temples, elaborate dress, and naturalistic proportions. Similar figures carved from wood have been discovered in caves on the Bandiagara plateau, some ninety miles from the Inland Niger Delta. Because the terracotta and wooden figures are similar in form, scarification, dress, and adornment and have comparable dates, a connection likely exists between the two. The wooden sculptures are attributed to either the Djennenke peoples or the Kagoro clan of the Soninke.

This statue is the oldest wooden sculpture in the Dallas Museum of Art collection from south of the Sahara. Its lustrous surface, the result of innumerable anointments with oil, continues to exude oil, suggesting it may have remained in use until the mid-20th century.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 2.