PARIS (Reuters Life!) - With its full beard and elongated breasts, worn smooth by the hands of thousands of women praying for fertility, an androgynous wooden statue is the centerpiece of a new Paris show of native West African art.
"Dogon" at the Musee du quai Branly (www.quaibranly.fr) from April 5 to July 24 displays more than 300 wooden sculptures - statues, masks, and carved bas-relief granary doors of the Dogon people who live in eastern Mali.
Many sculptures in the show, some carbon-dated to the 10th century, depict hermaphrodite figues with both male and female features and are believed to play a role in fertility rituals.
"The Dogon believe it is the reunion between man and woman that makes the perfect being," Helene Leloup, retired dealer in African art and organizer of the exhibition, told Reuters.
Featuring pieces from the Quai Branly's own collection as well as from the Paris Dapper museum, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn museum and private collections, the exhibition brings together Dogon woodcarvings as well as art from neighboring ethnic groups in eastern Mali.
Statues include horsemen, mother and child carvings and figures with their hands in the air, in a supplication for rain.
Helene Joubert, head of the Quai Branly museum's sub-Saharan African art section, told Reuters that the many androgynous figures are typical of Dogon art and illustrate an obsession with the distinction between the sexes and the elimination of ambiguity between the two.
Anthropologists from France, the colonial ruler of most of West Africa, have long studied the Dogon and carted away hundreds of sculptures, especially during the 1930s, ahead of the opening of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.
Many of the statues in the Quai Branly exhibition are centuries old and were carved by pre-Dogon people. The museum also displays giant Dogon masks, carved pillars from meeting houses and the doors as well as the intricate wooden locks to their millet granaries.
Hardwood stools are a staple of Dogon art. Each has eight caryatid figures supporting the seat -- the eight mythical ancestors, four males and their female twins, of the Dogon creation myth.
The Dogon live along the Bandiagara escarpment, a 200 km (124 miles) stretch of cliffs in Mali running roughly parallel to the Niger river.
A mainly animist tribe numbering about 400,000 to 800,000 today, the Dogon fled islamization in the coastal provinces and built houses in and around the sandstone cliffs that overlook the wide savannah plains toward Burkina Faso.
A Unesco World Heritage site, the Bandiagara is a day's travel from two other Heritage sites: the city of Djenne with its huge adobe mosque, and the desert town of Timbuktu.
Experts say the growth of adventure tourism in Mali has fueled a woodcarving cottage industry and that Dogon sculpture, now dissociated from its original religious function, increasingly finds its way to African art galleries in the West.
Many of the visitors to the Quay Branly museum in the first week of the exhibit were people who have traveled in Mali and have brought back Dogon artwork from there.
"It is great to see the origins of Dogon art," said Michel Kadeyan, who said he had bought Dogon masks, a door and wooden lock on a trip through Dogon country.
Editing by Paul Casciato