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Tellems Dogon Sculptures

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  • cmreedfrederick
    I was wondering if anyone can help me confirm the figures in my photo album under Tellems Dogon Sculptures and Tellems Dogon Sculptures 2 --
    Message 1 of 2 , Sep 18, 2006
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      I was wondering if anyone can help me confirm the figures in my photo
      album under Tellems Dogon Sculptures and Tellems Dogon Sculptures 2 -- http://ph.groups.yahoo.com/group/African_Arts/photos/browse/caa0 .

      If you have any history you would like to share, I would appreciate.
    • LRubinstein@post.harvard.edu
      Maisons Tellem Source: _http://www.taddart.com/galerie/mali/dogon/IMGP4329.JPG.htm_ (http://www.taddart.com/galerie/mali/dogon/IMGP4329.JPG.htm) Tule (Toloy
      Message 2 of 2 , Sep 20, 2006
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        "Maisons Tellem"
        Tule (Toloy culture - 300/200 years BC) - 1983
        Source:  http://www.dogon-lobi.ch/c02tule.htm
        (To see more images of Dogon country, go to http://www.taddart.com/, click on Galerie, then scroll down the left-hand menu and click on Pays Dogon,
        Dear Cindy:
        Dogon-style figures with up-raised arms are commonly referred to as "Tellem" figures.  Indeed, the phrase "Tellem figure" does indeed conjure in my mind the image of just such a form.  However, it should be noted that this assignation of "Tellem" for such figures with up-raised arms -- while popularly used and easily recognized -- refers most accurately and stringently only to figures which were created during a historical epoch roughly between  the 11th and 15th centuries by the Tellem people who resided in the current locale of the Dogon along and atop the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali.  Referring to his colleague's broader application of the term, James Pascal Imperato states in Dogon Cliff Dwellers:  The Art of Mali's Mountain People:   "[Jean] Laude employs the term 'Tellem style,' for statues which in effect could have been made by either the Tellem or the Dogon."  (p. 25)  However, this broadening of the field of objects referred to as "Tellem" derives in part from the ambiguity created by the purported fact that Tellem figures found in caves along the south face of the Bandiagara cliffs were apparently integrated into Dogon ritual practices and, additionally, strongly influenced the evolution of Dogon figural style in some regions of Dogon country since the 15th century. 
        It should be noted too, however, that figures from the region -- and the earlier epoch --  with such an elongated form and upraised arms are not exclusively associated with the Tellem.  Pre-Dogon figures of similar form attributed to the Djennenke people -- figures which have been tentatively dated from the 11th to the 14th century (contemporaneous with the Tellem works) -- also exhibit the elongated form and upraised arms, suggesting that while common, the use of the descriptive term "Tellem" to refer to this type of figure unfairly reduces the association of this particular form with the Tellem and fails to acknowledge the prevalence of  this more widely distributed figural form among other groups in the region prior to the arrival of the Dogon. 
        To further underline the inherent gloss on the complex origins of the form by such a designation, I include below a passage form Helene Leloup's monumental work, Dogon Statuary, regarding the broader origins of this postural form in sculpture from the region:
        "Several statues have been identified as Tellem because they have raised arms...The statues with raised arms form part of a group of statuettes of different styles found all along the cliffs:  Djennenke, classical Tellem, Niongon, Komakan, to which we can add the ones mentioned by [Michel] Leiris, the raised-arm statues in the caves of Yongo..." (p. 127)
        So, I think it is important both to differentiate between the use of the term "Tellem" to designate more recent Dogon figures with upraised arms from the limited body of works can be truly designated as having been produced and used by the Tellem peoples hundreds of years ago as well as to acknowledge that all such forms that have this raised-arm characteristic, even those hundreds of years old, are not indeed necessarily Tellem.
        Nonetheless, the figure with upraised arms is a recurrent and forceful image among the Dogon as it apparently was for cultures which preceded them in the region.  Numerous explications suggest that the posture represents a figure praying for rain.  Mme Leloup states that "These figures played a role in rainmaking rites performed by all of the inhabitants of the cliffs:  a cultural adaptation by osmosis responding to the chronic lack of rain along the dry cliffs." (p. 127).  In the various texts accompanying such figures illustrated in Art of the DogonSelections from the Lester Wunderman Collection, Kate Ezra refers to a number of possible explanations which support the interpretation rather convincingly as well as suggesting other inspirations for the form represented in such figures:
        Figure 16:  "In their later work, Griaule and Dieterlen interpreted the gesture of raised arms as representing Nommo's role in purifying and organizing the universe and his relationship with Amma, the creator...Earlier, the gesture had been said to indicate communication between the earth and heaven...specifically a prayer for rain, an essential commodity in the arid environment in which the Dogon people live.  This latter interpretation is bolstered by the appearance of this gesture in actual Dogon ritual.  Sacrifices to elicit rain are made on altars called andugo, which are dedicated to the spiritual being Nommo [the first living being created by Amma and who later transformed into four pairs of twins], who is present in all water, including rain.  Andugo altars consist of ancient stone axes believed by the Dogon to have been sent down by Nommo with the rain, iron hooks called gobo, and sometimes wooden figures.  After making a sacrifice and building a fire whose thick smoke is said to attract dark rain, the officiant holds a gobo in his outstretched arm and brings it back over his head, making a hooking gesture to pull the rain-bearing clouds closer.  It amy only be coincidental, but this figure, whose arms are bent awkwardly at the elbow, appears to make precisely that gesture.
        "The figure is covered with a dense, fine coating of sacrificial materials...suggestive of the materials that are sometimes used for making sacrifices on andugo altars...The prayer that accompanies the sacrifice asking Amma for rain is 'As we have blackened [the andugo], blacken the sky';  that is, send the rain clouds that turn the sky black.  Like the gesture of raised arms, this figure's black surface may represent an eloquent plea for life-giving rain."  (pp 56-57)
        Figure 18:  "The gesture of raised arms pervades Dogon art, just as its most common interpretation, a prayer for rain, pervades Dogon religion.  Pleas for rain are made not only at andugo altars, but also at altars dedicated to a family's ancestors, the binu and Lebe [one of the original eight ancestors of the Dogon].  All of these altars are the focus of one of the most important Dogon rituals, called bulu...  Bulu takes place every year at the beginning of the planting season.  At the climax of this ritual, the hogon and various binu priests climb to the roofs of their sanctuaries and throw down to the assembled crowd heads of millet from sacred fields, which are used in planting that year's crop...The same gesture that invokes the heavens to send down rain may also capture the motion that results in the other essential component of a good harvest -- seeds impregnated with the life force of the ancestors and binu
        "A figure like this one may well have been placed in such a shrine, leaning against the wall, where the gesture of outstretched arms, either praying for rain or casting down grain, would reinforce the principal concern of Dogon religion -- to assure a good harvest that will enable the community to survive another year."  (p. 59) 
        A positive and encouraging development in the analysis of Dogon material culture that is found in the Ezra work is the movement away from plausible but unconfirmed accounts that seek to attribute mytho-historical representations to Dogon figures as if the meanings inferred by the authors represent the indigenous significance associated with the works by the menbers of the communities from which they come.  Dogon cosmology and symbolism is extremely complex, and many accounts -- including the pioneering work of Marcel Griaule  -- have been called into question by recent authors.  Rather than insisting that figures embody the cultural whole as portrayals of mythical and/or historical characters and events, it is perhaps more accurate to view such figures and their postures as representations of living individuals -- a reading that is supported by more recent research that draws upon indigenous interpretations.  Of course, it is wholly conceivable that significant symbolic forms may represent both general ideas and images that permeate the culture as well as specific portrayals of individuals within that culture whose ritual postures may reflect the underlying ideology and symbolism.  So, these readings are not mutually exclusive.
        Walter E.A. van Beek -- a contemporary ethnographer who has done fieldwork among the Dogon and who has offered alternative interpretations to those presented by earlier ethnographers and art historians -- indicates that many Dogon figures are generally created to represent living people -- rather than ancestors, as commonly presumed --  in idealized realities:  In other words, a woman desirous of children would be represented as a woman with child, a man desiring wealth would be represented with attributions associated with wealth, etc.).  Such figures are used as intermediaries in rituals -- and to create a locus for divine intervention when calling upon ancestral beings.  
        In 1988 , van Beek wrote of the Dogon perception that the supernatural beings whom they supplicate for aid -- Amma, Nommo, Lebe [Ama, Nomo, Lewe] and a descending lineage of ancestral beings including immediate ancestors, lineage ancestors and the original ancestors -- are essentially unpredictable.  Pleas for divine assistance in achieving a particular end do not necessarily elicit that end but rather open the supplicant to the possibility of an antithetical, or unwanted, result. 
        "They ["the gods"] are both helpful and threatening;  they give blessings but can also kill people.  Yet one has to depend on these unpredictable beings.  The sculptures help in the interaction between men and this ambiguous supernatural world...A statue serves somewhat as an intermediary, addressing the Creator on the supplicant's behalf, directing the gods' attention, which is thought to be of limited span, and refreshing their reputedly poor memories.  As the Dogon say, 'One cannot always pray and kneel at the altar, but the statue can!'" (Walter E.A. van Beek, Functions of Sculpture in Dogon Religion," African Arts Volume XXI, Number 4, Spring 1988, p.60)
        So, the dege, a ritually empowered protective statue embodying the desire of the supplicant, serves essentially as celestial post-it note, a visual reminder to Amma of the wish of the supplicant.  It also allows the supplicant to make her or his plea while attending to daily activities and standing at a safe distance from the unpredictable manifestation of or response from the powers which she or he invokes. 
        Without ritual, a carving is considered to be merely wood, or baga;  through ritual, a figure becomes a dege and gains panga (power) through every sacrifice made upon it, in the same way that an altar is consecrated and serves as a locus of communication with Amma.   The power gained through sacrificial ritual is cumulative and potentially dangerous, as the result it precipitates is not necessarily that which is requested.  The empowerment of a dege opens a portal to the divine but does not control and cannot predict  the divine's disposition or dispensation of the intervention it elicits.  Once the purpose of the dege has been completed (successfully or not), one must remain mindful and respectful of the power with which it has been ritually charged.  As van Beek explains,
        "After functioning for a period of time, whether the particular problem has been solved or not, the statue is put back in its hiding place.  One must respect its power and not terminate its use too abruptly, as total neglect would result in an 'attack' on the very people it was created to represent.  Sacrifices should be made at gradually decreasing intervals until, at long last, the statue is put at the bottom of the granary or trunk to be forgotten."  (van Beek, pp. 60-62)
        Van Beek continues to explain the way in which such retired dege may eventually be rediscovered and through their association with the ancestors whom they previously represented may indeed be re-activated to the serve as altars/protective figures for descendants of the individuals for whom they were originally created or to represent these more immediate ancestors, although not ritually, for the descendants who come upon them.  Thus, while it may be true in the latter instance that these figures become a type of ancestral figure, they are not created with this intended purpose so it is not wholly correct to regard them primarily as ancestral figures.  The possibility of their secondary use as such may explain in part the inclination to identify them as "ancestor figures", an inclination reinforced by the too common assumption that most African figures are either ancestral or fertility figures (widely true but often presumed without documentation).  This re-absorption of found objects from more recent ancestors is analogous to the Dogon re-integration of figures which may have been produced by the people who inhabited the region prior to their arrival. 
        A deeper investigation of the specific uses and meanings within Dogon culture reveals a complex and interesting insight into the nature of these African figures.  Regarding the specific raised-arm posture of figures from the Dogon/Bandiagara region with which we are here concerned, van Beek writes:
        "Let us now look at the iconography of these objects as it is interpreted by the Dogon themselves.  Most statues represent people, male and female.  They are usually made to 'pray' on behalf of their original owner.  Many expressions of prayer are possible:  a standing dege with hands raised high is praying; but so is a kneeling one.  Hands high or low, the figure kneeling or standing -- all postures are used in addressing God.  Not all statues, however, depict people in prayer.  Generally a figure with both hands up indicates either a specific demand (often rain) or protection against danger and evil *(e.g., spirits or sorcery).  Statues with two hands raised may also be used in the altars of the clan and lineages or of the village half;  in these cases they are sacrificed upon at the most important ritual of the year, the buro. (van Beek, p. 63)
        * like the protective, raised-arm Bateba Ti Puo of the Lobi... (*comment mine -- Lee)
        So, the exploration of Dogon figures, generally, and "raised-arm" figures, specifically, is indeed a tortuous -- and sometimes torturous --  investigation from which to draw firm conclusions.  All of the sources cited -- and many others offer rich material and interesting insights to consider in grappling with the consideration.
        When time allows, it will be interesting to converse at greater length on the stylistic parameters which are used to delineate -- albeit theoretically and not wholly conclusively -- Dogon examples of this type of statuary from examples attributed to groups which preceded the Dogon and which appear to have influenced Dogon carving styles.  Imperato and Laude both refer to such characteristics as the rigid back plane and the minimally articulated lower limbs that are generally found in Tellem and Tellem-style Dogon figures.  Among the features that may help ultimately to distinguish between Tellem and Dogon or between earlier and later styles is the greater occurrence among earlier peoples  of figures which are relief-carved with an undifferentiated back panel as opposed to similar Dogon forms which articulate the full figure in the round.  In other words, while Dogon figures may share some of the attributes of the figures produced by their regional predecessors, Dogon works tend to show a higher degree of detail from all sides including the back, moving away form the plank form associated with Tellem figures but also observable in the works of other early peoples in the region.  It must be mentioned that the plank-like form with unarticulated back also seems to appear in Komakan works from the 15th to 17th centuries.  Thus, again, the stylistics associated with the Tellem sculpture may be found more broadly throughout other groups from an earlier period.  It is possible that the prevalence of free-standing figures articulated on all sides is a more recent evolution, and wholly Dogon, thus marking the diminution of the plank-back as a stylistic element common to numerous groups in earlier periods but less common in the realm of Dogon sculpture proper...  (Still much research and analysis required on this point...) 
        For the present moment, I have put together some images that I was able to glean from online sources that illustrate raised-arm forms from the region:

        statue en bois du Xe ou XI e siècle, originaire de la région de Dnenné à l'ouest du pays Dogon (Mali)
        Musee du Quai-Branly
        statue en bois du Xe ou XI e siècle, originaire de la région de Dnenné à l'ouest du pays Dogon (Mali)
        Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
        Indiana University Art Museum
        A brief introduction to the Tellem is provided below.  This link also includes a selected bibliography which contains many of the sources cited above.
        I hope that this short treatment of the topic covers some points that you find interesting and helpful in assessing and identifying the figure of which you have posted images.  As always, any thoughts, images, insights that anyone else may wish to contribute are appreciated. 
        Thanks!  Lee
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