Dogon Couple (Dogon peoples)

Dogon Couple, 18th-early 19th century (Dogon peoples), Mali, wood and metal, 73 x 23.7 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Speakers: Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Steven Zucker

Is this a couple, or could this pair relate to a story from Dogon cosmology?

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at this spectacular sculpture of two figures seated side by side, this Dogon couple.

Dr. Peri Klemm: [0:14] This Dogon couple was probably found in a shrine in the Dogon village. The black color comes from the fact that it’s been given several offerings of sacrifices. This could have been blood. This could have been milk. This could have been alcohol, or palm oil.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] If you look carefully at the sculpture, you can see where little bits of oil is still coming to the surface.

Dr. Klemm: [0:33] The figures look almost identical at first glance. We can see subtle differences between the male and the female, but the big marking is the fact that the man has his arm around the woman. Putting one’s arm around a woman would not have been done in Dogon culture in public, so this obviously has some symbolic significance.

Dr. Zucker: [0:50] This is a really important clue that what we’re looking at is not contemporary Dogon society, but is very likely a representation of the mythic history of the Dogon people.

Dr. Klemm: [1:01] These could either be communal ancestors that would have been worshiped in a shrine, or they could represent the primordial couple or one of the Nommo pairs that the Dogon talk about in terms of their oral myth.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] We have to be careful when we try to read this couple through the lens of Dogon origin mythology, because different researchers have understood those origin myths in different ways.

Dr. Klemm: [1:21] Ethnographers came to the Dogon at different times, they visited different villages, and they came with their own set of methodologies and beliefs and assumptions.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] These are people that live in a broad area. It’s a dispersed community, and so there will be real variation even in understanding among the Dogon themselves.

Dr. Klemm: [1:37] In addition to that, the Dogon differentiate between the types of speech that they offer depending on who they’re talking to.

[1:43] For example, front speech might be what a non-initiated person might learn about Dogon cosmology, versus back speech or clear speech, which is a much deeper level of understanding that would only be appropriate for someone who was a member of society, and usually male.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] There’s interesting analogy between front and back speech to looking at this sculpture. We can look at it with relatively uninformed eyes and appreciate its formal qualities, but we have to really understand Dogon cosmology to understand what this sculpture meant to them.

Dr. Klemm: [2:14] We have this beautifully balanced couple, with these cylindrical torsos, long ovoid heads, and noses that are almost the shape of arrows. The distinguishing feature here between the male and the female is subtle.

[2:26] We have a beard on the man and a lip labret for the woman, but both have the herniated belly buttons, both have breasts that are prominent, and both rest their hands in their laps. The biggest difference in who these figures are and their roles is really depicted in the back.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] The clear distinction is not only one arm wrapped around the female figure, but what they’re wearing on their backs.

[2:47] The woman has a cylindrical form that is a child that clings to her back, that is almost identical in scale and shape to a quiver that would have held arrows for the man. We have this idea of childbirth, of nurturing, of the procreative, and we have the idea of hunting.

Dr. Klemm: [3:03] We get a sense here of the complementarity between the man’s role and the woman’s role in this society. Now, if we look at the stool on which they’re sitting, we see four female figures that support the stool itself.

[3:14] Those four female figures and the four legs of the couple create the number eight, which actually relates back to a very important part of the cosmology, the four Nommo pairs, who are responsible for a whole host of issues that form Dogon life the way that it is today.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] One of the aspects that I find most interesting is that kind of soft quality to the turns of their body. They seem to me almost boneless.

Dr. Klemm: [3:40] That would be supported by the idea that this is the Nommo pair. They were described as watery beings that hadn’t yet taken on human bodies.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] They lived in a world where there was union and also conflict between the sky and the earth. The earth not a solid place, but a watery, marshy place.

Dr. Klemm: [3:59] This disorder requires balance, requires order and proportion, which we find time and again in Dogon sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] Well, when I look at this sculpture, it is all about structure and order. The figures are perfectly vertical. The way that he raises his arm and shifts his shoulder is one of the only parts of this sculpture where the pure symmetry is broken.

Dr. Klemm: [4:20] That arm is touching her breast and his left hand is touching his penis. Again, as we saw with the back, there is a need to depict the nurturing, procreative and fertile aspects of the male and female complementarity. So, is this a couple?

[4:37] Or could this relate to another Dogon story, in which the sky, the father of the Dogon, breathes life into man and woman by allowing the man to lay down in his shadow and the woman to lay down on top of the man, creating a human being that has the characteristics of both sexes so that within each individual there is a duality between the male and the female that need to be in harmony with one another.

Dr. Zucker: [5:04] That’s where so much of the beauty of this sculpture comes from, is this tension between the way that they mirror each other and yet are each distinct from each other.

[5:12] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Peri Klemm, "Dogon Couple (Dogon peoples)," in Smarthistory, September 16, 2016, accessed April 16, 2024,