In This Article Art of the Dogon

  • Introduction
  • Figurative Sculpture
  • Dogon Blacksmiths and Woodcarvers
  • Contemporary Art

Art History Art of the Dogon
by
Kate Ezra
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0129

Introduction

The Dogon people live in one of West Africa’s most spectacular landscapes, a row of cliffs known as the Bandiagara Escarpment, located in the central plateau region of Mali. Due to their stunning environment and remote location, their complex and well-published mythology, and their sophisticated visual arts, particularly their vibrant and colorful mask festivals, they have captured the imagination of outsiders more than almost any other individual ethnic group in Africa. Intensive research on the Dogon began in the 1930s when a multidisciplinary team of French scholars led by the ethnologist Marcel Griaule arrived. These scholars generated an enormous body of literature, including many important works related to art. One of the first monographs on an African art form—and still one of the most important—is Marcel Griaule’s Masques Dogons (Griaule 2004, cited under Griaule School Studies), originally published in 1938. When Griaule and his colleagues became increasingly focused on Dogon myth and cosmology, their books and articles helped generate widespread appreciation for the sophistication and complexity of African thought. Despite their importance, these writings also attracted criticism, due to the authors’ research methods, the small area in which they conducted most of their research, and their many interpretations of artworks that could not be verified in context. Accordingly, this article includes a section on the historiography of Dogon art that discusses both the contributions and the shortcomings of the literature of the Griaule school. Archaeologists have provided another important perspective within the literature on Dogon art. The dry, protected environment of caves in the Bandiagara cliffs proved beneficial to preserving the remains of early inhabitants, and many of sub-Saharan Africa’s earliest surviving examples of wood and textile arts come from the Dogon region. In addition to anthropologists and archaeologists, the literature on Dogon art includes contributions by art historians, art collectors, architects, historians, geographers, photographers, journalists, and others. Because French researchers dominated Dogon studies for half a century beginning in the 1930s, much of the literature on Dogon art is written in French. Wherever possible, works in English have been included here. The article presents the major resources for studying Dogon art and the cultural contexts in which it is used. In addition to sections on Historiography and Archaeology and History, there are sections on Architecture and Environment, Figurative Sculpture, Masks and Commemorative Mask Festivals (Dama), and the Dogon Blacksmiths and Woodcarvers who create these art forms. The final section focuses on Contemporary Art, reflecting this important trend in the study of African art.

General Overviews

While there are specialized studies of specific types of Dogon art, there have not been any monographic overviews of Dogon art, other than Exhibition and Collection Catalogues. These are covered in a subsection all their own. Instead, broad popular interest in the Dogon has given rise to a genre of lavishly produced books consisting of photographic essays and introductory texts that include useful overviews of the environment in which the Dogon live, their origins and history, social organization and daily life, and accounts of masked dancing at funerals and commemorative rituals. These photographic overviews, many of which are in English, provide an excellent introduction to Dogon culture for students and interested laypersons alike. Hollyman and van Beek 2001 is among the best of this type, due to the participation of the anthropologist Walter van Beek, who has extensive knowledge of the Dogon. Blom 2010, by a Swiss photographer who spent twenty-five years documenting Dogon art and culture, is an especially important resource for art and architecture because of Blom’s insightful readings of the literature on Dogon art and his keen eye for documenting art in situ. Several useful overviews in English are available online. Ezra 2003 provides a brief introduction to Dogon culture, history, and art, and is useful for college students whose libraries have subscriptions to this online encyclopedia. Roy 2015 provides an overview of Dogon art through a compilation of video clips dating from the 1930s to the present, easily accessible to all on the Internet. ReCollecting Dogon (Davis 2017) is an online exhibition catalogue that serves as an excellent overview of Dogon art, particularly the history of collecting and contemporary issues. Two overviews of a different sort deserve mention. Denise Paulme was a member of Marcel Griaule’s research team in the 1930s; Paulme 1988 is a wide-ranging monograph on Dogon social organization that differs markedly from the abstract cosmological approach taken by other members of the Griaule school (see Griaule School Studies). Geneviève Calame-Griaule, the daughter of Marcel Griaule, was one of the founders of the field of ethnolinguistics. While Calame-Griaule 1986 focuses on speech and language, it is a wide-ranging investigation of Dogon culture that presents a different view of Dogon society than her father’s, one more based on individuals’ choices and lived experiences. These overviews, as well as those in Anthologies and Exhibition and Collection Catalogues, include information on Dogon art forms not covered in depth in this bibliography, such as stools, bowls, personal ornaments, bronzes, and others.

  • Blom, Huib. Dogon: Images and Traditions. Paris: Momentum, 2010.

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    Excellent black-and-white photographs accompany texts on Dogon history and archaeology; geographic regions and the sculptural styles attributed to them; architecture and its political, social, and religious functions; and funerary rites and masks. Brief essays summarize the wide scope of literature on Dogon art, augmented by the photographer’s observations.

  • Calame-Griaule, Geneviève. Words and the Dogon World. Translated by Deidre LaPin. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986.

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    Originally published in 1965 as Ethnologie et langage: La Parole chez les Dogon. This ambitious monograph explores Dogon speech in wide-ranging contexts, from personal interactions to village politics and religious rituals. As such it provides insights into many aspects of Dogon culture that have bearing on art.

  • Davis, Paul R., ed. ReCollecting Dogon. Houston: The Menil Collection, 2017.

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    Website created in 2017 to accompany an exhibition at the Menil Collection, available in both English and French. Brief articles by specialists focus on the history of collecting Dogon art (Paul R. Davis, Éric Jolly), contemporary Dogon culture and economic change (Isaïe Dougnon), and contemporary masks and art (Polly Richards, Jessica Hurd). Also includes a photographic essay (Huib Blom) and a video (Paul Chandler) that provide visual introductions to Dogon country.

  • Ezra, Kate. Dogon. In Oxford Art Online. Edited by Judith Rodenbeck, 2003.

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    Brief overview of Dogon art encompassing an introduction, geography, cultural history, artists, figurative sculpture, masks and masquerades, architecture, domestic arts, metalwork, and a bibliography, which was updated in 2014. This encyclopedia of art is available online by subscription.

  • Hollyman, Stephenie, and Walter E. A. van Beek. Dogon: Africa’s People of the Cliffs. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

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    Hollyman’s photographs are unusually vibrant and active. Van Beek’s lively text covers village organization, gender and social structure, the annual cycle of rituals, religious beliefs, funerals, and the dama and sigi mask festivals.

  • Paulme, Denise. Organisation sociale des Dogon. Paris: J. M. Place, 1988.

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    Originally published in 1940, this monograph is a down-to-earth description of Dogon society, focusing on family and village organization; marriage, gender relations, and kinship; political order; and religious practices—all of which provide the contexts for understanding Dogon art.

  • Roy, Christopher D. Dogon Art and Life. YouTube Video. 2015.

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    Compilation of numerous films and videos dating from the 1930s to 2014, woven together by Roy’s expert narration. Comprehensive overview of Dogon environment, history, daily life, art and architecture techniques, altars, masked dancing at funerals, and dama and sigi rituals. Extensive list of sources at end. Provides intriguing information on the links between Voltaic and Dogon cultures. 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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