Dogon Primordial Couple Figure

  • Tribe: Dogon
  • Origin: Mali
  • Approx Age: Early - mid 20th century
  • Materials: Wood, iron
  • Dimensions cm: 77 tall x 28 wide x 26 depth
  • Ref. Number: M0526

A lovely example of an old Dogon primordial couple which was found in a village in the Mopti region of Mali.  This sculpture gives eloquent expression to the shared and symmetrical responsibilities of men and women in Dogon society. The virtually identical forms of the male and female protagonists in this visual commentary accentuate the parity of their subtly distinctive roles. The two figures share lucid, graphic, and repeated elongated vertical elements with only infrequent differences. For example, on the male figure, a beard extends the chin while the female figure wears a labret, an ornament in the lip. Additionally, where he has a smooth torso, she has elongated breasts that droop from the suckling of multiple children. On the reverse side, the female figure carries a baby on her back, the male a quiver. She is responsible for child care, he for providing sustenance. He has one hand on his genitals and the other protectively draped across her shoulders and resting on her breast. This emphasizes their mutual roles in procreation and nurturing. Male and female are connected to one another by his gesture, but additionally are articulated as discrete units. This approach reflects Dogon attitudes toward marriage as a partnership of independent equals. This balanced duality is also a central tenet of Dogon mythology.

The small, crudely depicted figures at the base of the stool may represent the supportive role the ancestors play in the lives of the living. Their rough angularity contrasts with the elegance and stature of the elongated figures above. The particularly high level of finish of the work as a whole, its smooth surfaces, intricate detailing in the face and hair, and lack of sacrificial material indicate that this sculpture was not intended for an ancestral shrine, but rather was displayed at funerals. This interpretation is supported by the presence of iron ornamentation in the hair, ears, and on the wrists of the figures, since iron adornment is historically worn or placed next to the dead during Dogon funerals.

This work’s scale and complexity have led scholars to suggest that it may have been created for display at the funerals of influential Dogon men. The graphic composition constitutes an eloquent statement concerning the distinct and yet complementary roles of male and female partners as a unit of life. With understated elegance and an economy of details, the artistic distils man and woman to a perfectly integrated and harmonious union. One of the most striking aspects of the representation is the degree of bilateral symmetry that describes man and woman as reflections of each other with delicate and subtle departures that indicate their distinct identities. The figures’ elongated bodies are depicted as a series of parallel vertical lines traversed by horizontals that draw them together. On the reverse side a small child clinging to the female’s back is balanced by a quiver on the back of the male. That concluding pair of features distinguishes their respective role as nurturer and provider joined together to procreate and sustain life.

Dogon art is extremely versatile, although common stylistic characteristics – such as a tendency towards stylization – are apparent on the statues. Their art deals with the myths whose complex ensemble regulates the life of the individual. The sculptures are preserved in innumerable sites of worship, personal or family altars, altars for rain, altars to protect hunters, in market. As a general characterization of Dogon statues, one could say that they render the human body in a simplified way, reducing it to its essentials. Some are extremely elongated with emphasis on geometric forms. The subjective impression is one of immobility with a mysterious sense of a solemn gravity and serene majesty, although conveying at the same time a latent movement. Dogon sculpture recreates the hermaphroditic silhouettes of the Tellem, featuring raised arms and a thick patina made of blood and millet beer. The four Nommo couples, the mythical ancestors born of the god Amma, ornament stools, pillars or men’s meeting houses, door locks, and granary doors.


The primordial couple is represented sitting on a stool, the base of which depicts the earth while the upper surface represents the sky; the two are interconnected by the Nommo. The seated female figures, their hands on their abdomen, are linked to the fertility cult, incarnating the first ancestor who died in childbirth, and are the object of offerings of food and sacrifices by women who are expecting a child. Kneeling statues of protective spirits are placed at the head of the dead to absorb their spiritual strength and to be their intermediaries with the world of the dead, into which they accompany the deceased before once again being placed on the shrines of the ancestors. Horsemen are remainders of the fact that, according to myth, the horse was the first animal present on earth. The Dogon style has evolved into a kind of cubism: ovoid head, squared shoulders, tapered extremities, pointed breasts, forearms, and thighs on a parallel plane, hairdos stylized by three or four incised lines. Dogon sculptures serve as a physical medium in initiations and as an explanation of the world. They serve to transmit an understanding to the initiated, who will decipher the statue according to the level of their knowledge. Carved animal figures, such as dogs and ostriches, are placed on village foundation altars to commemorate sacrificed animals, while granary doors, stools and house posts are also adorned with figures and symbols.
Reference: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,