Bird Figures - Sakalava, Madagascar

The earliest figurative form to have emerged in Sakalava funerary sculpture is that of the bird, portrayed either alone or as a pair. The specific theme of the ibis (mijoa) is thought to embody the interconnection of the worlds of the living and the afterlife. Taken together, the statuary invokes the memory, balance, partnership and symmetry of the two planes. As funerary monuments, the carvings served to memorialize an important community figure.

The present example shows the strength of its symbolism in the pair of ibis, or aloala, which stand closely before one another, a mirror image, each figure seeming almost to support the other. The birds reflect each other in a metaphor of the eternal duality of life and death, as well as the continuance of life through partnership and procreation.

The elegance of the shapes – heavy and swelling bodies at the base that taper up into the slender, spreading hooks of the birds’ featureless heads – are emphasized by the furrows in the eroded wood, which lend dramatic texture and an aura of immeasurable age to the birds in their immortal union. Paired ibis figures are rare, and this is one of the few examples that remains in private ownership.

Late 19th century
Height: 28 in

Private collection, Belgium

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