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Ask MOA: What Are These Figures?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about two wooden figures purchased in a market in London.

Question from inquirer:

“I bought these two carved wooden female figures as a pair in London at the Portobello Road Market in 2000. They are carved from a heavy wood and the surface has a dark patina. Stylistically they show influences from South Asia and possibly East Africa. I showed a photo of them to a historian of South Asian/Islamic Art who suggested they might be from the Malabar Coast but wasn’t sure. The taller figure has round eyes and a bindi reminiscent of some bronze figures from South India, but I haven’t seen a comparable one in wood. The shorter figure is more akin to African carving. Both figures have a very nice carved braid at the back. I would be very interested to learn about comparable examples. Thank you!”

Answer from Fuyubi Nakamura:

Thank you for your inquiry. This pair of wooden female figures are fertility dolls known as babli and they are from Karnataka, a state in South India. The Malabar Coast is in Karnataka and Kerala states, so the guess by the art historian you contacted regarding where they are from was correct! These dolls would double as fertility figures or used as toys for girls.  They would be worn by women wishing to have children and a small ritual with a local deity would be held. This ritual is said to be in practice in some parts of northern Karnataka, according to a friend from India.

Marapachi dolls. Photo: Nvvchar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Venus of Willendorf from Austria. Photo: MatthiasKabel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While I am not 100% sure, they are likely be made of red sandalwood or red sanders as the wood is commonly used to make marapachi dolls, also from South India. The medicinal properties of the wood are considered beneficial to health especially when girls play with them. Marapachi dolls representing a couple would be used as toys like babli dolls or be displayed at Golu or Kolu, the festive display of dolls in South India during the Navaratri (Nine Nights of the Goddess) Hindu festival, which ends with Dussehra or Dasara on the tenth day. Mysore Dasara is one of the biggest and prominent state festivals of Karnataka.

There are various forms representing fertility across different cultures and times. For instance, Akua’ba ritual fertility dolls by the Asante people from Ghana and nearby areas, and prehistoric Venus figurines from Eurasia dating from the Paleolithic period or Old Stone Age are perhaps well-known examples.

We don’t have figures like the ones you have, but here are some examples of fertility figures from different parts of the world we have in our collection!

Akua’ba ritual fertility figure, MOA Collection: 3192/2. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.
Meso-American fertility figure from Mexico. MOA Collection: 3157/130 a-c. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.


Response from inquirer:

Thank you so very much! Great find on the comparable ones from the auctions you shared with me—that’s definitely what they must be. You’re the first person I’ve shown that knew what they were (apart from the art historian I contacted, who was unsure, as was the former curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum), so I’m both impressed and grateful!