African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An Ideal Couple/ A Funerary Object

Yesterday we were party to an excellent tour covering several important works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s African Art collection.  I was so pleased to learn more about one of my favorite pieces at the museum, the wooden, 18th century “Dogon Seated Couple” from Mali.

dogon couple

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, click for source.

I have always loved this couple for the way that they seemed to exist in perfect harmony, contentedly sitting with the man’s right arm around the woman, his right hand resting on her breast and his left hand resting on his junk, but I never understood the meaning and importance of this amazing sculpture.

Our excellent guide,  Kristen Windmuller-Luna, of Princeton University, explained that this sculpture is all about balance, an esteemed value in Dogon society.  The man and woman (not real people but rather an idealized couple) are carved with “bilateral symmetry” – they are virtually mirror images of each other (and if you cut them in half vertically, mirror images of themselves as well).

According to our guide, the piece is so beautiful and complex that it likely was used in the funeral rituals of very important Dogon men.   The  carving would be brought out to teach and inspire men and women to assume their proper roles in a  balanced society.  The man has a quiver for arrows on his back, the woman has a child on her back – they unite to create and sustain life.

When you get close up, you can enjoy their elaborate hair styles, scarification and loads of jewelry (both have several piercings).

You can also see where insects have eaten away part of their base.  Although our guide didn’t know the type of wood used in the carving, she did note that the dark color was often achieved by rubbing  sculptures with palm oil and other substances (including dirt from graveyards, sometimes).


A Powerful Queen Mother Commemorated


Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, click for source


We also learned that this ivory pendant mask is one of the most significant and rare pieces in the Metropolitan’s entire collection of African art.  The mask represents an (idealized) actual person – her name was Idia, and she was the mother of  Oba (King) Esigie of Benin.  The  mask was carved in the early 16th century and it was likely worn as a pendant by Oba Esigie during rituals meant to honor his deceased mother and insure her protection.  This piece is one of the few portraits of women in all of Benin’s art history and its existence is evidence of her immense power and importance to the kingdom.

Idia has lovely curly hair and she wears a cool tiara that contains carvings of mudfish, which are very aggressive animals that emit electric shocks and can live on land and in the water.  Their fierceness and adaptability were deemed valuable characteristics in leaders of Benin. Idia’s tiara also contains carvings of Portuguese men!  According the Metropolitan’s website, the Portuguese were believed to be from “the spirit realm”, with the power to bring riches and power to the king.  Our guide noted that Idia got along really well with the Portuguese and even persuaded them to offer military help to her son.

Those vertical lines on her forehead?  According to our guide, it was foretold that Idia was to marry a king, but she didn’t want to, so she applied “medicine” to her forehead in order to repel the king.  Instead, the king removed the repellant and married Idia despite the scars left by the medicine. The scars were said to be the source of some of her metaphysical powers.  We will be sure to visit Idia on our class tour at the Metropolitan!



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