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Polychrome Wooden Catapult
Dogon People, Mali
early 20th century
height: 19cm, width: 8cm
This catapult from the Dogon people of Mali is carved as a female figure, in light wood. The figure stands with slightly bent knees. It is finely detailed with the
figure not being merely decorative but serving as an integral part of the function of the catapult.
The figure’s coiffure in bright red, continues as two protruding rounded rods in Y-shape, which serves as the holders for the sling.
The facial features have been worn from use but remain distinctive. The figure has prominent breasts and a protruding belly button. Remnants of a beaded
ornament motif in black and white paint residue can be seen around the waist.
This catapult shows significant signs of use, with some minor age-related surface cracking here and there. An old, native repair can be seen on the back the
right leg. The legs have been worn smooth where the user would have held the catapult to fire it. Overall, the piece is in fine, stable condition with a smooth,
Dogon art forms often incorporate a Y-shape feature. Most noticeably, this is found in the oversized ears of the female figures carved on Dogon door locks.
Also, figures with raised arms are common amongst the Telem, a group antecedent to the Dogon. These figures are believed to represent mythical ancestors,
nommos. Nommo is typically represented by a figure with upraised arms, a posture believed to be associated with prayers for rain.
Another similar art form in Dogon is the Y-shape forked post, toguna, that supports the roofs of the meeting houses for men. Usually, these fork posts are
adorned with carved female figures. Dogon people also have ladders that resemble toguna, which they use to climb into their stacked homes and granaries.
African catapults are not well documented by comparison to other African art forms. But what distinguishes this Dogon catapult from the more common Baule
catapults, is its form. Baule catapults more typically have the necessary Y-shape formed from the lower part of the body of the associated decorative figure,
rather than from the top. (Examples of Baule catapults can be found in the Timothy F. Garrard Collection that was sold at Bonhams London in 2005. )
Catapults were used in the hunting of smaller prey to supplement the diet. Traditionally, Dogon fathers carved catapults for their young boys. However,
wealthier families would commission a professional carver.
Catapults were believed to hold talismanic powers and bring luck in hunting. Twentieth century examples were fitted with rubber from inner tire tubes.
The Dogon inhabit the Bandiagara cliffs, an imposing setting in an austere environment. They are one of the very few existing ethnic groups to have remained
the closest to their ancestral traditions both in artistic expression as well as in ceremonial practice.
Ginzberg, M., African Forms, Skira editore, 2000.
Robbins, W. M. and Nooter, N. I., African Art in American Collections, Smithsonian Institution, 1989.
Provenance: UK art market
Inventory no.: 1973
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