Marcel Griaule, Ambibé Babadyi, and young man holding a tortoise, Sangha village. Sahara-Sudan Expedition, 1935. Fonds Marcel-Griaule, Bibliothèque Éric-de-Dampierre, MAE, Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense.



by Éric Jolly

In the 1930s, Dogon Country in the French Sudan (now Mali) was the midpoint or the crossing point in five French ethnographic missions. Three of these (in 1931, 1935, and 1938) were led by Marcel Griaule. Two were led by women: Denise Paulme and Deborah Lifchitz in 1935 and Solange de Ganay and Germaine Dieterlen in 1937.

With the exception of the 1937 trip, these were large expeditions whose purpose was to collect items for the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Their aim was ostensibly to enrich the museums’ African collections, but there were larger objectives as well, related to the then-nascent professionalization of the field of ethnology in France. For the new professional ethnographers educated at the Institut d’Ethnologie, founded in 1925, it was important to bring back objects that were well documented, impartial evidence of the societies being studied.

Nevertheless, the types of artifacts selected evolved over the course of the various missions: ordinary everyday objects progressively gave way to sculptures that combined antiquity, physical beauty, and symbolic meaning, including masks, statues, and Dogon door locks. The expeditions all benefitted from the colonial context, and brought back large numbers of artifacts.


In the early years of the 20th century, two scientific expeditions set off for Dogon Country. Lieutenant Louis Desplagnes visited the region in February of 1905, twelve years after the conquest of Bandiagara by the French (in 1893). He acquired 50 or so Dogon objects, which he donated to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. These were mostly door locks and carved doors, ritual statues, headrests, and painted stones gathered at the Songo circumcision cave. He did not bring back masks or everyday tools.

The famous German anthropologist Leo Frobenius traveled across the southern half of Dogon Country in September 1908, three years after Desplagnes. The collection of artifacts he gathered, preserved at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, included a dozen beautifully made sculptures, notable Hogon vessels, ritual statues, a door lock, a granary door, and a hare mask.

Henri Labouret led a French mission several years later. At the end of 1929 or perhaps early in the early part of 1930, this former colonial administrator led a short mission to Dogon Country, bringing back approximately 100 objects, mostly wood masks and their fiber costumes, a dozen locks and doors, and a small group of statues, all of which were given to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. These early expeditions, which took place in the years before and just after the European craze for “art nègre,” prioritized ritual and decorative objects and highlighted their aesthetic qualities.

Collection Methods Employed in the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, 1931–33

Directed by Marcel Griaule, an Ethiopia specialist, the Dakar-Djibouti Mission was the largest French ethnographic expedition and the only one to be financed by Parliament. It was composed of ethnographers, linguists, and a musicologist, and traversed Africa from west to east between May 1931 and February 1933, collecting a large number of objects, using the methods taught by Marcel Mauss at the Institut d’Ethnologie.

Just before the start of the expedition, Michel Leiris—the mission’s archivist—put out a brochure entitled “Instructions sommaires pour les collecteurs d’objects ethnographiques” (Summary of instructions for the collectors of ethnographic objects), based on notes Griaule had taken during Mauss’s course in 1926. This manual supplied the researchers with a rigorous method for collecting, classifying, and documenting the exotic objects destined for the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. It also attempted to direct their choices by suggesting that they document the totality of material culture rather than make their selections based on such criteria as beauty, rarity, antiquity, or purity of style.

In the interest of thoroughness, the ethnographers were directed to acquire all sorts of objects, from the most rudimentary to the most refined. This was the method employed by the members of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, at least up to their arrival at Mopti in what is now Mali. But it was no longer the case once they arrived in Dogon Country in September 1931. Fascinated by the rituals and masks they observed there, Griaule and his colleagues increasingly privileged the purchase of sacred and mysterious objects, which they believed to be evidence of secret societies and organizations. Out of 300 items collected in Dogon Country between September 28 and November 29 that year, more than two-thirds are ritual or decorative artifacts, including about 40 masks or related textiles, 20 or so statues, approximately 10 rhombuses (or bullroarers), more than 60 painted stones, and just under 20 door locks and carved doors. Most of these pieces were purchased, but a few were quietly stolen by ethnographers who believed themselves to be taking part in an urgent mission to safeguard a society at risk of disappearing.

Upon the expedition’s return, these Dogon masks, painted stones, and statues were showcased in an exhibit entitled Dakar-Djibouti at the Trocadéro and featured in the luxuriously produced journal Minotaure, which published three articles about the artifacts in 1933. Certain passages in Michel Leiris’s travel journal L’Afrique fantôme (Phantom Africa), published in 1934 by Gallimard, paid tribute to the increasing attraction among ethnographers for ancient, rare, and beautiful magico-religious sculpture in the style of the Dogon “Great Mask” (Emina na).

The Sahara-Sudan Mission, 1935

The next Griaule mission, Sahara-Sudan, sought to complete the work undertaken in Dogon Country in 1931. The evolution of collecting practices seen in the previous Dakar-Djibouti Mission continued. Out of 350 items acquired in February and March of 1935, only one-eighth consisted of commonly used utensils and clothing. Conversely, the proportion of masks nearly doubled; more than 80 were collected, including their adornments and accessories. The collection also included around 30 statues, diverse cult objects, embellished objects (locks, doors, stirrups, weaving utensils), and, finally, jewelry, particularly hairpins.

In 1935, Griaule and his colleagues were openly seeking sublime objects chosen for their aesthetic qualities, their antiquity, and the magical significance with which they were imbued. They prioritized items hidden deep in caves or sanctuaries in order to plumb the depths of Dogon culture. This explains the large number of ancient sculptures, many of them damaged, brought back during this mission. The abundance of masks is evidence of Griaule’s interest in these objects, which are at the heart of his research. In 1938 he published the results of his work at the Institut d’Ethnologie under the title Masques dogons (Dogon Masks), and the volume includes many illustrations and photographs.

The Paulme-Lifchitz Expedition, 1935, and Lebaudy-Griaule Expedition, 1935

Denise Paulme and Deborah Lifchitz arrived in Dogon Country with the Sahara-Sudan Mission in February 1935 and stayed until October 1935. The 180 objects they brought back to the Musée d’Ethnographie were magnificent pieces, mostly antiquities, similar to the works purchased by European collectors. But, unlike Griaule and his team, Paulme and Lifchitz were less interested in masks than in carved door locks, of which they gathered 70 examples. They were also interested in wood statues; the most famous of these, sinuous and slender, is exhibited today in the Pavillon des Sessions in the Louvre Museum.

This preference for beautiful objects—contrary to Mauss’s instructions—was also pronounced in the Lebaudy-Griaule Mission of 1938–39. On the instructions of Jean Lebaudy, coorganizer of this expedition, Germaine Dieterlen collected magnificent masks, statues, and door locks in the Dogon and Kouroumba territories, which were later exhibited at the Musée des Cabrerets.

After the war, there would be more acquisitions of Dogon artifacts during missions organized by Griaule between 1946 and 1956, but these were not as systematic or as extensive. By then, Griaule’s research had turned to Dogon cosmogony and his interests lay primarily in everyday utensils, textiles, and sculptures. Increasingly, he attributed symbolism and mythologies to Dogon masks and statues. This latter tendency in Griaule’s work greatly influenced interpretations of Dogon art, privileging myth over history.

Translation by Marina Harss