Much of Dogon art consists of striking ritual masks made with carved wood and other materials. Dogon architecture conveys symbolic relationships in Dogon society and is considered one of the most distinctive styles in West Africa.The Dogon live in the rugged yet beautiful Bandiagara escarpment of south central Mali. They migrated to this remote cliff area around the fifteenth century c.e.. in part to preserve their cultural beliefs and institutions when the Islamic Mali empire was at its height. When the Dogon arrived at the Bandiagara escarpment, they found architectural and...
Much of Dogon art consists of striking ritual masks made with carved wood and other materials. Dogon architecture conveys symbolic relationships in Dogon society and is considered one of the most distinctive styles in West Africa.The Dogon live in the rugged yet beautiful Bandiagara escarpment of south central Mali. They migrated to this remote cliff area around the fifteenth century c.e.. in part to preserve their cultural beliefs and institutions when the Islamic Mali empire was at its height. When the Dogon arrived at the Bandiagara escarpment, they found architectural and other remains of earlier civilizations, among these the Toloy (third century to second century b.c.e.) and the Tellem (eleventh century to fifteenth century c.e..). Dogon building, weaving, iron working, and pottery traditions reflect both an interest in these and other earlier regional art forms, and an influence from contemporary regional political and cultural centers such as Djenné and Tombouctou (Timbuktu). Dogon Architecture Dogon villages are constructed to resemble a human body. At the “head” of the village is a blacksmith’s shop and a toguna, a community men’s house. The toguna is an open-walled structure with roof supports carved in human shapes, often the female form. Typically, the toguna has eight such supports, with the number representing the first eight Dogon ancestors who sat in a ruling council. Today these ancestors impart wisdom and spiritual knowledge to Dogon elders when they meet in the toguna to discuss village affairs. Across the supports lies a thick, horizontal layer of millet stalks, which provides shade. The layer of millet also recalls the village elders’ ongoing concern with community wealth and well being. Following the millet harvest, the roof of the toguna is used as a drying rack for the millet, which is an important crop for the Dogon.At the “feet” of the village are binu—small, often elaborately decorated temples. The binu are dedicated to nature spirits related to water, healing, and similar concerns. Evergreen plants nearby symbolize the vitality of these spirits throughout the year. The binu, which are molded of earth, have rounded walls, a small central door, and several conical mounds at the top the facade, possibly derived from early family houses in the area. Today, Dogon family residences are rectilinear earthen structures with flat terrace roofs similar to residences of Mande Muslims in the area.Family residences sit at the “chest” of the village. The ginna, the houses of important families, display a grid of earthen niches across the façade as well as a row of conical mound shrines along the roof line. During annual ceremonies these mound shrines are filled with offerings of white millet, increasing their prominence. The millet-filled mounds draw one’s eye both skyward and toward the tall cliffs behind the village, where the dead are placed in caves. A wooden “Black Monkey” mask, dating from 19th century Mali. (Bridgeman Art Library International Ltd.)Families store their grain on the upper story of the house, often behind a haar, a small door or shutter. A haar is usually carved with rows of raised-arm figures representing the protective presence of the nommo, the first ancestors. The raised-arm gesture, which is also common to sculptures placed in family shrines, is a reference to prayer and also directs the eyes of worshipers to the sky, from where the nommo are said to have come. The goyo, or granary, recalls myths about the origins of seeds and fire, which is thought of as a piece of the sun. According to Dogon legend, both seeds and fire were taken by a nommo blacksmith bringing civilization to earth. Sculptural portrayals of the nommo often show them with the sexual attributes of both men and women. Their androgny refers to the belief that men and women originally were similar. Dogon Masks Dogon men belong to the Awa mask society. Men both make and perform with their masks at funeral-related rites, as well as at dama celebrations, which end the two-year mourning period after the death of an important male elder from the village. A range of mask types is employed to ensure that the nyama (spirit) of the deceased will leave. Maskers represent animals or people that the deceased elder met in life. Animals might include a monkey, a rabbit, a crocodile, an antelope, a ram, or a bird. Humans represented by maskers might include a blacksmith, a healer, a sorcerer, a stranger, or an enemy. The number of masks also indicates the family wealth and social status of the deceased. Together, the maskers symbolize the inhabitants of the Dogon world. Social values are reinforced through negative and positive examples: the monkey mask is a troublemaker, glutton, and thief. The rabbit, in contrast, represents great agility, speed, and stamina.At the climax of the dama rites, one or more individuals appear wearing Kanaga masks, the unusual abstract shapes of which are said variously to recall crocodiles, birds in flight, and the act of creation (symbolized by the union of heaven and earth). These and other masks also appear during sigui rites (sometimes known as sigi), which are held every sixty years to mark the symbolic death of a whole generation and to recall the first funeral when mask-making was initiated. For each sigui celebration, an enormous serpent-form mask is created. Though too sacred to ever be worn, it is preserved in one of the caves above the village. The number of sigui masks serves as an important historical marker for the number of generations of Dogon who have lived in the area.See also Masks and Masquerades in Africa.
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