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Art of Africa (Dogon tribe)

It was always interesting to me to learn about African Art, its symbols, masks, sculptures, and what they meant. Some parts of Africa still have tribes and traditions they follow for many decades and that is what amazes me the most. After visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art, especially a section of the Art of Africa, I was amazed by Dogon people who arrange religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors and control the good and evil forces in their community. What caught my attention is the way they focus on a tight web of connections between the mythological and cosmological world of masks, sculptures in particular, and other objects worn in funerary rituals.

I read an article by Kate Ezra about Dogon people who settled in the Bandiagara cliffs of Mali in West Africa, where performances of masks take place at the ceremonies of the Dogon people to pursue the meaning and symbolism of events. Marcel Griaule was the first person who recorded commentaries about Dogon masks, when seen in performance, the masks bring to life “ancestors” that may be human, animal, or vegetal. Griaule also mentioned the symbolism of three types of Dogon masks “in terms of the uppermost level of Dogon knowledge”. These are the Kanaga (below), amma ta, and sirige masks. Each of them has different stages of cosmogony, different dances which follow each other and are accompanied by changes of rhythm. They all three represent events that took place at the beginning of the universe created by God Amma, whose spirit is everywhere, never dying, and able to do anything with her power. They refer to the movement that “Amma impressed on the stellar universe after he created it, and the descent of an ark containing all that was to live on Earth”.

Mask (Kanaga), Mali, Dogon peoples, 20th century, wood, fiber, hide, pigment, 53.6 x 97.2 x 15.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Dogon masks, such as the one above-called Kanaga, represent the movement imposed upon the universe by Amma. It is worn primarily at dama (means “prohibition”), a collective funerary rite for Dogon men; the ritual’s goal is to ensure that ancestors' spirits have a safe way to the other world, to the world of ancestors.

Like many other Dogon wooden masks, Kanaga masks depict the face in a rectangular shape like a box with deep holes for the eyes. The structure above the face of the mask indicates that it is a Kanaga because it has a double-barred cross with short vertical elements that we can notice from the end of horizontal bars. Kanaga mask has been interpreted as a representation of a bird, and as a symbol of the creative force of god and the arrangement of the universe. The upper horizontal stick/bar of the mask represents the sky and the lover one-the earth.

Kneeling Mother with Child,16th–20th century (Dogon peoples)

The figure of a kneeling mother with child (above) has been an important subject of religious sculpture in the region of Dogon people. Dogon patrons asked people to commission similar maternity figures to express a prayer to be blessed with a child/children, and the figures were placed on altars to function as a surrogate for their patron or as an expression of their prayer.

Seated Couple,18th–early 19th century (Dogon people)

The figure Seated Couple (above) was created for display at the funerals of influential Dogon men. The black color of the figure comes from the fact that it has been given many offerings of sacrifices, which could be blood, milk, alcohol, or palm oil. These two figures of the statue look very similar, but there is a little difference between the male and female–the man’s arm around the woman and his left hand is touching his penis. In Dogon’s culture putting one’s arm around a woman would not have been done in public. So, it has a symbolic significance, it depicts the nurturing and fertile aspects of the male and female. We can notice the symmetry of the figures that describes man and woman as reflections of each other.

Mask (Samana),19th–20th century

According to the article ‘Masks and Mythology among the Dogon’, Germaine Dieterlen describes masks of Dogon people as a representation of a Samo, a member of a neighboring ethnic group with warlike and aggressive behavior. The Samana mask (above) has a special role in the masked dances of the dama ceremony. The dances performed in public are secular than those that are performed at the house of the deceased. The Samana mask dancer wears a cotton cloth under his fiber skirt and holds a sword and a lance in his hand. His dance reminds more of a fight or a battle with an imaginary enemy in which the dancer interacts with the audience, speaking to them in Samo dialect.

Dogon artists depict many human characters in their masks, such as priests, young and old people, craft specialists, hunters and etc. Most of these characters made of cloth and fiber, just a few human characters are portrayed in wood.

What the Dogon and African Art itself has taught me is that we are entitled to our own ethnocentric and cultural opinions and we follow our own aesthetic views, but we should be careful how we project our judgments upon Africa, because every society, culture, and even a family has it’s own “religion”, rules, oddities. We should appreciate it and let them keep what’s with them for decades and with some even for centuries.

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