Magazine article New African

Dogon - Africa's Scientists of Pre-Science: Since Early April, the Musee Du Quai Branly in Paris Has Been Running an Extraordinary Exhibition Describing the Cultural Heritage of the Dogon People of Mali. Stephen Willams Went to See It

Magazine article New African

Dogon - Africa's Scientists of Pre-Science: Since Early April, the Musee Du Quai Branly in Paris Has Been Running an Extraordinary Exhibition Describing the Cultural Heritage of the Dogon People of Mali. Stephen Willams Went to See It

Article excerpt

GENERALLY, ETHNOLOGICAL MUSEUMS rarely focus on a particular country, let alone a single ethnicity, but the Musee du Quai Branly has done just that with a major show dedicated to the Dogon people of southeast Mali. The exhibition, stunning in its breadth, covers the whole 10 centuries that the Dogon have occupied the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali. It is the first major Dogon retrospective in more than 20 years.

The museum has drawn upon and extended the work of Louis Deplagnes in the early years of the twentieth century, and Marcel Griaule in the 1930S, who both dedicated many years in attempting to uncover some of the mysteries that still surround the Dogon's origins, their beliefs and rituals.

These mysteries have fascinated scholars and the general public for more than a century, particularly in France. Artefacts from the Dogon's region spell out intriguing clues to these remarkable people, but perhaps one of the first lessons to be learned from an enquiry into Dogon culture and symbolism is its multifaceted nature. For instance, as Helene Fulgence, the director of exhibitions at Musee de Quai Branley told New African, in deciphering the meaning of the Kanaga masks, "we must accept that there are at least five distinct and equally valid interpretations".

Early explorers

The ethnologist Marcel Griaule, who led the 1933 Dakar-Djibouti exhibition that traversed Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia conducting field research in 15 countries, lists 68 types of Dogon Kanaga mask in his 1938 thesis. They each have a specific dance and are connected with a particular character or myth, thus representing an element of the universe.

Men wear the masks, and all circumcised men belong to the awa (the society of masks). The masks are worn at key times, but mainly for the dama ritual - a dance traditionally marking the end of a period of mourning to guide a departed spirit to join the ancestors. Owing to their expense, these are today very rare, but a dama-like, ritual is often performed for tourists and film crews.

Every 60 years, over a period of several days in Dogon country, masks are also worn for the sigui. This ceremony is a celebration of the spoken word and of the death and funeral of the Dogon's first ancestor. The next sigui is scheduled for 2027. Significantly, the sigui procession of constantly changing masked dancers goes from village to village, settlement to settlement, over a number of months and no one sees the ceremony in its entirety. So it is with interpretation of the masks' symbolism--interpretations are multiple, not common. And they do nor compete; rather, they coexist within Dogon society. While Dogon masks are very famous, they are by no means the only important artefacts within the culture. In fact, the three areas of the Musee du Quai Branly's exhibition open with a huge space filled with more than 130 sculptures in many different styles and dating from the pre-Dogon 10th through to 19th century works. The most common sculptural themes are human figures such as horsemen; women and children; hermaphrodites (representing an ideal combination of genders); and figures with their arms raised in supplication to the Dogon's god, Amma, who created the earth and bestows the blessing of rain.

The earliest of these sculptures, such as of the Niongom grouping (considered the first inhabitants of the Bandiagara Escarpment), use the natural form of a tree's branch to create a very simplified, yet eerily abstract and beautiful representation of a human body with detailed heads and facial features.

The Tellem peoples settled in the region during the 10th century but seem to have disappeared with the 14th century arrival of the Dogon-Mande. There is evidence that the Dogon-Mande came from an eponymous region of the ancient Mali Empire, possibly to escape being pressed into accepting Islam. The newcomers were probably assimilated by the Tellem--certainly, the Tellem's very stylised sculptures were re-used by the Dogon. …

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