This sculpture which is one of the most original in African works of the time. It is dated from 1800 to 1850 and comes from a period of intriguing self-discovery for the African continent. The common theme that the figures explore is the familial one where the man is carrying a quiver on his back while the woman is carrying a child on hers. In a sense these are the roles which have to be followed in African society where the man carries out his work as a hunter which provides for the family while the woman is left to raise the children according to traditional roles.
The sculpture consists of two elongated figures which are sitting down and linked by the man who is putting his arm in a protective stance over the woman. The way the human body is portrayed in its elongated form is typical of African sculptures at the time which showed a propensity for this type of appearance. Again the amulets and charms which adorn the figures lend a certain air of superstition to it all also inveighing a certain amount of deity influence which is also another characteristic feature of African sculpture. The facial expressions are also very much in keeping with what is the norm here with large mouths and slit eyes although one has to compensate for the difficulty of carving in wood. The man and woman sit proudly and almost haughtily in this respect and they also portray an air of serene reflection in proceedings which is captured by their assured and relaxed poise.
The Dogon sculpture is rather low on anatomical details perhaps due to the fact that the sculptor wanted to portray an image which focuses on the bond between the man and the woman. In fact the way the quiver is portrayed is no incidental manner but is a clear reflection of the man’s important role in society as that of the hunter and provider of the family. The same goes for the woman whose child is the symbol of her status in society as the child bearer and rearer. Sexually explicit details which are usually present in African sculpture are here given a miss with only a couple of rather indifferent spots showing the breasts of the woman and these are quite comparable with that of the man at this stage. The elongated legs and the fact that both seem to be wearing shoes is another interesting facet of proceedings which is not normally prevalent when compared to other roles in African sculpture. Here the author seems to be more focused on the amicable and familial relationship between a man and a woman rather than the sexual prolificacy which is not a factor here.
Spirituality is always an important facet in African customs and traditions and this is obviously an important part of any sculpture. However the distinct spiritual message is notably absent from this sculpture which tends to focus on the domestic features rather than the spiritual ones. The caring, almost paternal way in which the man embraces the woman is almost reminiscent of a father-daughter relationship and the man seems to be much older than the woman, at least when facial characteristics are taken into account. However the earings and other charms which the woman is wearing also imbue a certain amount of spirituality in accordance with African customs where the charm is an important link between the earth and the spiritually mystic. Again, the fact that the couple is seated imbues a certain amount of mysticism and reflection on what might be. Certainly the facial expressions which seem to be content raise questions on the direction of the message portrayed by the artist who wishes to imbue a sense of relaxation and serenity to proceedings.
Conclusion – the sculpture as a way of combining messages
Seated Couple comes from Mali which was an extremely rich country in the early to mid parts of the 19th Century when Timbuctu was still an important trading post there. The sculpture is definitely one of the most important examples of artistic work in that area and in that time as it demonstrates how the three aspects of structure, anatomy and spirituality could be combined into one intrinsic whole. While it not may be too strong on anatomy. The sculpture certainly retains a powerful force in all its aspects especially the parts which show it to be different from other more traditional works. Seated Couple is a powerful statement on the bond of the family but particularly focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman where their roles are emphasized with a certain amount of subtlety but also with intrinsic directness in every step. Naturally enough there will always be debate on what the sculpture actually constitutes but it is definitely an important and highly intriguing work that depicts the culture of Mali.
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