Interior of John and Dominique de Menil’s residence in Houston, Texas, ca. 1972.



by Paul R. Davis

At first no one heeded the vogue commercially. But gradually as it began to spread and the supply, which was always extremely limited, dwindled, dealers began to takes steps to assure themselves of importations.(1)

—James Johnson Sweeney, African Negro Art, 1935

Museum founders John and Dominique de Menil likely were first acquainted with the Dogon peoples in entre-deux-guerres Paris. The sensational and politicized Exposition Coloniale Internationale, which received several million visitors and featured performances by a troupe of masked dancers from the Bandiagara region among other phenomenal attractions, opened in the city just three days before the de Menils were married in 1931.(2) Citizens of the multifaceted, colonial world of Paris during the early 20th century, the newly wedded couple certainly would not have missed such an impressively large-scale event that brought political debate and indigenous peoples from European colonies in Africa, Asia, and Americas to their front door.(3) While they did not acquire work from the vendors at the exposition, the following year they purchased from a Parisian dealer a mask (mukudj) made by the Punu peoples in Gabon.(4) In African Art from the Menil Collection, scholar of Malian art and former Menil curator Kristina Van Dyke describes how this idealized representation of female beauty preceded the de Menils’ significant growth as collectors and their interest in the arts of Africa.

Today, there are more than 60 works attributed to the Dogon peoples in the Menil’s permanent collection, a significant concentration in the museum’s holdings of art from Africa. Speculating on the de Menils’ interest in works from the Bandiagara region, Van Dyke points to their personal library as “evidence that they followed the research of Griaule and his collaborators over time.”(5) The Menil Collection library holds several early publications on the Dogon peoples, including three copies of Marcel Griaule’s 1938 Masques dogons (Dogon Masks) and an original edition of Griaule’s influential Dieu d’eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli (God of Water: Conversations with Ogotemmêli, 1948), in which Griaule recorded Ogotemmêli’s recitation of creation according to the Dogon peoples.

The museum also possesses photographs of the Dogon sigi (also sigui) festival taken by anthropologist Germaine Dieterlen (1903–1999).(6) A close colleague of Griaule with extensive experience working with Dogon peoples in Mali, Dieterlen assisted with the identification and interpretation of the de Menils’ collection of art from French West Africa. Correspondence from the 1970s and early 1980s exchanged between Dieterlen and Dominique de Menil bespeak a friendly relationship. In addition to numerous three-sentence notes summarizing the function and symbolism of individual works in the collection, Dieterlen’s photographs of the sigi festival illustrate the use of a staff-seat (dolaba), which the de Menils purchased from the Parisian dealer Jean-Michel Huguenin in 1962.

The de Menils bought their first two figures attributed to the Dogon peoples in the late 1950s from John J. Klejman (1906–1995). A small female with plaited hair sitting on a stool and a nearly life-sized standing male with raised arms, the two figures are contrasting first acquisitions. Both figures, as well as five other masks and sculptures attributed to the Dogon peoples, were included in Jermayne MacAgy’s (1914–1964) Totems not Taboo: An Exhibition of Primitive Art in 1959 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Then director of the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, MacAgy’s pioneering exhibition was the first museum show of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the city. The large male figure was one of two works attributed to the Dogon peoples that Klejman lent to Totems Not Taboo. After the exhibition closed, the de Menils purchased the figure from Klejman and later displayed it prominently in their foyer and living room, as if exalting visitors to their Phillip Johnson–designed home in Houston (see above).

A Polish émigré, Klejman opened a gallery in the late 1950s on Madison Avenue, a few blocks from the de Menils’ New York residence.(7) He would later become one of the most influential dealers for antiquities and so-called primitive arts in the United States. Selling works originating from Africa, which he had obtained from European collectors, dealers, and former colonial administrators, Klejman was part of a competitive but collegial circle of émigré dealers on Madison Avenue that included Julius Carlebach (1909–1964), Ladsilas Segy (1904–1988), and Mathias Komor (1909–1984).(8) Together, these galleries serviced a growing American market for the arts of Africa, Oceania, Americas, Asia, as well as ancient and medieval Europe.(9) Although the de Menils purchased works from all of these galleries, Klejman was particularly influential.(10) He sold work to most major art museums in the United States and, as Van Dyke observes, Klejman maintained a close relationship with the de Menils. Several of the works in ReCollecting Dogon come from his gallery, including two of the de Menils’ acquisitions made in 1960: another, nearly life-sized male figure and an enigmatic squatting figure with a composite, stool-like head made of several smaller figural elements.

Klejman typically provided an invoice that included a description of the object and his endorsement of its authenticity. Van Dyke eloquently characterized why this documentation was effective: “His invoices are nearly works of art in themselves: neatly typed on onion-skin paper and provided in duplicate, stating ‘GUARANTEED GENUINE’ at the bottom, signed by the dealer with a flourish.” Klejman’s confident descriptions were not always accurate, however, and often oversimplified the complicated intercultural histories of visual culture among African peoples. For example, in 1965 Klejman gave the de Menils a Janus-faced helmet mask he attributed to the Dogon peoples. African art scholars Leon Siroto (1922–2015), who the de Menils hired in 1970 at Klejman’s recommendation to catalogue their collection of art from Africa, and Christopher Roy determined the mask originated from the Bobo peoples, who are associated with a region in southern Mali and Burkina Faso that is more than 200 miles away from Dogon Country. Such interpretive discrepancies highlight the trouble with the dynamic history of cultural exchanges spanning the present-day border of Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso as well as attributions made based on style by outsiders with partial information.

The de Menils first acquisitions occurred at the close of a transformative decade for the ethnographic study and collecting of visual culture in the Bandiagara region. In her encyclopedic Dogon Statuary (1994), Hélène Leloup describes the early 1950s as a period when some adventure-seekers “rapidly realized they could finance their trips by selling ‘souvenirs’ collected during their travels. Adventure was thus transformed into commerce.”(11) Leloup, her first husband Henri Kamer (1927–1992), Emil Storrer (1917–1989), François di Dio (1921–2005), and Pierre Langlois (1927–2015) were among this initial wave of exploratory “field collectors,” who amassed significant collections of Dogon visual culture. The aforementioned standing male figure (X 057) the de Menils purchased from Klejman in 1960 originally had belonged to Storrer, who likely collected the statue a few years earlier during a trip to the Bandiagara region. Stirred by Marcel Griaule’s influential Dieu d’eau, Langlois traveled to the area in the early 1950s and collected sculptures, masks, and other objects. According to Leloup, in 1954 Langlois presented the first monographic exhibition on the arts of the Dogon peoples in Europe.(12)

By the end of the 1950s, political landscapes of African countries were changing: many were moving toward or had already proclaimed independence from Europe. Under the leadership of Modibo Keita (1915–1977) and the Union Soudanaise-Rassemblement Démocratique Africain, the République du Mali declared independence from France in 1960. In Dogon Statuary, Leloup paints a melancholic picture of the exodus of objects from Mali following independence. Recounting an unprincipled scene of local and international traders of African art, she concluded objects “from Dogon country had practically all gone to the West.”(13)

By the time the Menil Collection opened in 1987, the founders had collected more than 80 works attributed to the Dogon peoples, a large number of which they acquired during the 1960s. Some were returned or exchanged for other works or were purchased as gifts for institutions with which the de Menils were affiliated. On loan to ReCollecting Dogon from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a large ceremonial vessel (aduno koro) that was a gift from the de Menils following that museum’s appointment of James Johnson Sweeney (1900–1986) as director in 1961. Sweeney was an early and active American advocate for the arts of Africa. In 1935, he curated the landmark exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.(14) Included in ReCollecting Dogon are three black-and-white photographs by Walker Evans (1903–1975), who made a portfolio of the numerous objects in that exhibition.(15) Along with Jermayne MacAgy, Sweeney reinforced the de Menils’ appreciation for the arts of Africa.

As with many other public and private collections formed during the 20th century, wood sculptures predominate in the Menil’s collection. Ceramic vessels and figures, wall paintings and bas-reliefs, indigo-dyed cotton textiles, lost-wax cast bronze figurines, and other objects that play fundamental roles in daily life in the Bandiagara region are few or absent. Three exceptions are the iron and stone necklaces (singular, dugo) that were gifts from Klejman and Paris-based dealer René Rasmussen (1912–1979). The museum’s collection is exemplary of the vogue during mid 20th century for figural sculptures, masks, and architectural elements from the region—works that appealed to European artists, ethnographers, explorers, and dealers.

The astonishing richness of the Dogon myths, as well as their oral tradition, preserved by the isolation of these tribes, fascinates ethnologists at the moment…. Dogon art, in all seriousness, without concession or coquetry, returns us the purest sources of art today.

—Pierre Langlois, Art soudanais: Tribus dogons 1954(16)

By 1930s, when Griaule and his team were conducting ethnographic studies, the peoples in the Bandiagara region were clearly not representatives of an isolated and preserved so-called primitive African culture, as Langlois concluded in Art soudanais: Tribus dogons (Sudanese Art: Dogon Tribe). European and American incursions in the Bandiagara region add up to a long history of colonial encounters that created opportunities for collecting and then exhibiting the visual culture of Dogon peoples. In the Bandiagara region, the colonial administration established a French-language school in village of Sangha as early as 1910. Following the success of the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris, the colonial government in the French Sudan created the Maison des Artisans Soudanais, a French-language school in the colonial capital Bamako with the mission to preserve indigenous artisanal techniques of woodcarving, leather working, weaving, and metalsmithing. Increasingly exposed to European culture and French-language education, Dogon peoples negotiated between multiple, intersecting conditions of encounter: their lives among other indigenous groups in the Bandiagara region; their subordinate position as inferior colonial subjects (sujets or indigènes) of France; their role as valuable intermediaries for career-defining ethnographic collecting missions like those of Griaule and his followers; their presentation of Dogon culture as the object of tourism.

Colonialism, ethnography, and collecting were central to the popularization of Dogon peoples and their visual culture with audiences in Europe and the United States during the 20th century. As enumerated in the 1931 “Instructions Sommaires pour les Collecteurs d’Objets Ethnographiques” (Summary of instructions for the collectors of ethnographic objects), the loss of an object’s original social and cultural significance was a concern of French ethnographers, who were studying Dogon peoples under the veil of benevolent colonial missions:

It is only by surrounding the object with information…that one can avoid its transformation into a dead object, divorced from its environment and context and incapable of regaining them, once it reaches a museum.(17)

About the processes of collecting by outsiders, Africanists Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim observe “that once removed from their original context, all artifacts are decontextualized and given new meanings which reflect the values and views of museum, curators, collectors, and Western audiences rather than the minds of the African who made and used the objects.”(18) The sculptures, masks, and other objects collected by John and Dominique de Menil are not dead. They are also not just examples of Dogon visual culture. They are complicated objects, alive with intercultural histories of indigenous artistic invention and colonial desire that define their out of context presence in ReCollecting Dogon.

  1. James Johnson Sweeney, African Negro Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1935), 12.
  2. See Gaetano Ciarcia, De la mémoire ethnographique: L’exotisme du pays dogon (Paris: Éditions de L’école des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2003); Gaetano Ciarcia, “Dogons et Dogon: Retour au ‘pays du reel,’” L’Homme 157 (2001): 217–230; Alice Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013); Tamara Levitz, “The Aestheticization of Ethnicity: Imagining the Dogon at the Musée du Quai Branly,” The Musical Quarterly 89, no. 4 (2006): 600–642. To protest the exposition and its representation of European colonization as a necessary and benevolent humanitarian intervention in the lives of “savages,” members of the Surrealist circle of writers and visual artists mounted the exhibition The Truth about the Colonies (La verité sur le colonies). Drawn from their collections of masks and sculptures from the colonies and fabricated “European fetishes,” the small, polemical exhibition sought to reveal the brutal atrocities of colonialism. See Romy Golan, “Triangulating the Surrealist Fetish,” Visual Anthropology Review 10, no. 1 (1994): 50–65; and Adam Jolles, The Curatorial Avant-Garde: Surrealism and Exhibition Practice in France, 1925–1941 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013).
  3. The same year, the de Menils also purchased bark cloth textiles or maro (CA 3203; CA 3204) collected by French author-adventurer Jacques Viot during his expedition in the late 1920s to Lake Sentani, Papua (Irian Jaya). See Virginia Lee Webb, ed. Ancestors of the Lake: Art of Lake Sentani and Humboldt Bay, New Guinea (Houston: The Menil Collection; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
  4. Van Dyke, African Art from the Menil Collection, 18.
  5. Van Dyke, African Art from the Menil Collection, 19.
  6. The sigi festival is perhaps the most important socio-spiritual event of an individual’s life. The festival, which celebrates the generational transfer of esoteric knowledge and cleanses the spiritual landscape, is supposed to occur every 60 years and, over a duration of seven or more years, the festival travels from village to village along the Bandiagara escarpment.
  7. Dominique Browning, “What I Admire I Must Possess,” Texas Monthly, April 1983, 37; Pamela G. Smart, Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 77; Van Dyke, African Art from the Menil Collection, 21.
  8. Van Dyke, African Art from the Menil Collection, 21.
  9. See Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Christa Clarke, eds., Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011); and Christopher B. Steiner, African Art in Transit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  10. Van Dyke, African Art from the Menil Collection, 21.
  11. Hélène Leloup, Dogon Statuary (Strasbourg: D. Amez, 1994), 73. See also Hélène Leloup, Dogon (Paris: Musée du Quai Branly and Somogy, 2011), 59–60.
  12. Leloup, Dogon Statuary, 73.
  13. Leloup, Dogon Statuary, 73.
  14. The exhibition checklist, catalogue, press releases and installation photographs of African Negro Art can be viewed here:
  15. See Virginia Lee Webb, Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art, 1935 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000).
  16. “L’étonnante richesse des mythes dogons, que l’isolement de ces peuplades a préservée, —ainsi que leur tradition purement orale—, passionne actuellement les ethnologues. L’intérêt suscité par la production artistique de ces tribus n’est pas seulement d’ordre scientifique. On sait quelle influence l’art africain a exercée sur nos arts plastiques : l’art dogon, tout de rigueur, sans concession, ni coquetterie, nous ramène aux sources les plus pures de l’art actuel.” Pierre Langlois, Art Soudanais: Tribus Dogons, Collections Arts plastique (Brussels: Editions de la Connaissance; Lille, France: Librairie M. Evrard, 1954), 14.
  17. “C’est en entourant l’objet d’une masse de renseignements, techniques ou autres, et de toute une documentation (photos, dessins, observations) qu’on parviendra à éviter qu’une fois dans les musée il se transforme en objet mort, abstrait de son milieu et incapable de server de base à la moindre reconstitution.” Musée d’Ethnographie, Instructions sommaires pour les collecteurs d’objets ethnographiques (Paris: Palais du Trocadéro, 1931), 10.
    The following quote from Griaule also illustrates this point: “Despite being placed in a vitrine, some thousands of kilometers from its place of origin, the object must be embedded in some reflection of its daily life. Each document should be backed up with a long series of observations for which the roots extreme in all directions of human activity. To this end, we will take a photograph of each object in its setting, its environment, we will film every phase of its manufacture.” (Bien que situé dans une vitrine, à des milliers de kilomètres de son lieu d’origine, il faut que cet objet reste enveloppé en quelque sorte du reflet de sa vie quotidienne. Chaque document devra être étayé d’une longue série d’observations dont les racines s’étendront dans toutes les directions de l’activité humaine. Dans ce but, on prendra pour chaque objet une photographie de son cadre, de son milieu, on filmera toutes les phases de sa fabrication.) Marcel Griaule, “Buts et Méthodes de la Prochaine Mission Dakar-Djibouti,” Conférence du décembre 1930 au Lyceum de France (Paris, 1931). Reproduced in Eric Jolly and Marianne Lemaire, eds., Cahier Dakar Djibouti, 101–119, (Paris: Éditions les Cahiers, 2015), 111. See also Nicolás Sánchez Durá and Hasan G. López, eds., La Misión etnográfica y lingüística Dakar-Djibouti y el fantasma de África, 1931–1933 (Valencia: Museu Valencià de la illustraciò i de la Modernitat, 2009), 292–96.
  18. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, ed. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 30.