Detail of Amahigueré Dolo, Components of the World (Adouron Bew), 2011. Wood and earth, approx. 1.2 x 4.3 x 1.8 m (4 x 14 x 6 ft.). Installation at the Menil Collection, Houston, 2017.



by Jessica Hurd

“It is like a voyage,” explained Dogon artist Amahigueré Dolo (b. 1955) as we stood before a large-scale, multifigure installation in his sandy, studio courtyard in Ségou, Mali. The title of Dolo’s installation in the Dogon toro speech variety, Adouron Bew, translates to Components of the World.(1) It is a fitting name for a dynamic crowd of 86 zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, all exhibiting distinct forms, gestures, and personalities. The scene is intended to evoke the migration of all “components of the world” (humans, ancestors, animals, insects, bush spirits, etc.) to Earth to insure the continuation of life. It’s movement that creates.... It’s the thing that will never cease,” states Dolo.

The figures’ complex interweave of bodily poses in Components of the World exposes us to the delicate web of relationships that exist between members of the visible and less visible realms; relationships that, in Dogon society, must be continually mediated through the efforts of ritual specialists. The postures also reflect Dolo’s creative technique. In his wood sculpture, he allows the natural twists and turns of the branches he collects to guide his adze and spark his imagination. “Make it as it is,” Dolo says. “It is in that way that the tree guards its force.” His figures draw from dreams, the stories of his maternal grandmother, his urban and rural life experiences, and his personal reflections on the upward-reaching, rooted “life force” of trees.

Components of the World represents Dolo’s second foray into the interactive, space-based realm of installation art. It was also the first time the artist “planted” his sculptures in a bed of Mali’s signature red soil, an act that transports viewer to the red rock Bandiagara cliffs, sandstone plateau, and Séno-Gondo plain, a culture region commonly known as Dogon Country. This is the place where Dolo spent his childhood and which he continues to visit in body and in mind. It is also a place where “planting” precious objects in the spiritually animated, cultivable earth is an important aesthetic, religious, and territorial practice. Agricultural concepts surrounding the cycle of life and death and the value of “taking root” are incorporated into the artist’s creative strategy:

One must be grounded in order to stand, to grow, to live. At death, one is often buried in the earth. If there is not death, there is not life…. The earth is a part of the sculpture. It is obligatory. It’s the base. Even in the interior of a gallery, one needs to put down sand and plant this installation in it. It’s like planting.

Dogon and pre-Dogon objects planted in the soil in the Bandiagara region include figural sculptures guarding gardens;(2) the famous Nongom-style sculptures,(3) which were buried up to their necks and surrounded by animal skulls in the village of Yaye; (4) relics from the tombs of mytho-historical Mande ancestors (lebe);(5) and rocks sent to earth in strikes of lightning.(6) There is also a pre-20th-century practice of burying the bodies of sacrificed human victims into the earth with iron hooks (gobo)(7) lodged in their skulls to attract rain and positive forces from the celestial realm (pegu).(8) In the Menil Collection, these iron hooks are also seen on dress masks(9) and the bodies of altar figures.(10)

It is common for these buried objects to be coated in accumulative layers of clay and sacrificial substances, eventually forming conical earth shrines. Scholars including Laurence Douny and Jean-Christophe Huet have revealed diverse roles of Dogon earth shrines: indexing safe spaces in the landscape, marking owned territories, infusing the soil with the ancestors’ generative forces, and serving as points of access between the visible and less visible realms.(11) Blood and millet gruel sacrifices(12) offered at the shrines help to revive the invisible shield that separates humans from harmful spirits, enemies, or diseases.

Dolo’s interest in site-specific Dogon “installations” comes through in The Verticalities (Les Verticalités), a sculpture made in collaboration with French sculptor Alain Kirili in 2007.(13) In this work, a depicted clay shrine opens its mouth to receive the ritual specialist’s sacrificial offerings (in the center of the illustration). Kirili’s insertion of a twisted, metal rod at the top of the shrine alludes to the gobo. It also symbolizes the vertical lines of communication between the celestial deity Ama and the Dogon that are opened through ritual activity as well as the vertically oriented forms of millet stalks, the most valued Dogon crop. In another work by Dolo, titled Narien II (Resurrection), 1999–2000,(14) an earth shrine (female deity Earth, buried contact materials of ancestors) bends forlornly under the weight of its worries for its children.

Expressly vertical forms in Components of the World also mimic the celestial reach of trees and millet stalks. Certain figures raise one or both arms toward the sky in a pose that is seen in many Dogon sculptures in international museums.(15) According to Dolo, ritual specialists employ this gesture to offer “benedictions for water, for health, and for prosperity.” Other figures raise an extra arm or leg to the sky. For Dolo, additional limbs reveal the presence of one’s “invisible double,” a shadow of oneself that provides balance (sanity) and perspective to each individual.

Among single body parts reaching toward the sky, a raised foot communicates the clairvoyance of the pale fox and other bush animals whose tracks are read by Dogon diviners.(16) The elongated beard of a large ancestor head (a symbol of accumulated knowledge) descends toward the floor, like the waterfalls in/near Sanga Gogoli, the artist’s home village. A raised hand expresses the artist’s appreciation for manual labor. A single horse head evokes the protective animal (tana) of the artist’s village.(17) Dolo's aesthetic interest in verticality, as revealed through these examples, can be linked to his name, Amahigueré, which translates to “He whom God allows to stand upright.” Dogon infants are given this name only if none of their siblings have lived long enough to stand. The name is intended to push to the child upward toward survival.

Both Components of the World and the artist’s first untitled installation of 2005 concentrate on the theme of migration. Dolo’s first installation was exhibited at the Fondation Jean-Paul Blachère in Apt, France. It presented eight ceramic vessels inching forward on a serpentine iron platform. The platform represents serpent’s, lebe’s, fertilizing path in Dogon mythology. In Sanga, Lebe is recognized as the guide of the four legendary Dogon families on their journey from their Mande region origins to the Bandiagara escarpment. For Dolo, the serpentine path is also the correct path, since it “moves around spirit-inhabited spaces.”

Components of the World focuses on an earlier migration, one that includes all beings of the natural world. Interestingly, Components of the World’s installation space is not limited to Dogon members of the visible and less visible world. One also finds references to winged angels, talking snakes, and other mysterious creatures that populate the ancient Hebrew Book of Genesis. By presenting these shared stories, Dolo challenges the otherness of Dogon religious thought. He also reminds the international community that all God’s creatures, human or otherwise, were sent to Earth with divine intention. Consequently, they must all be respected:

Nothing is useless. If the things are there, they have a purpose. The Dogon have benedictions for everything that exists. Everything is guided by the intentions of God. This installation depicts the equilibrium in the Dogon system of life. It reveals their [the Dogon] way of seeing.

From an aerial perspective, the bodies in Components of the World form the rough shape of a vessel with a winged angel at the bow. “All that is natural in the world is guided by angels,” explains Dolo.(18) “Even with the stuff of Christians, the stuff of Jesus’ sacrifice and the boat [Noah’s Ark], one says that they are similar. One says that the cosmic system of the Dogon is very close to the Old Testament.” After all, he argues, we were all selected to board a vessel (ark in ancient Hebrew accounts, celestial granary in Sanga-based genesis accounts). Moreover, we all arrived in pairs at a newly redeemed land. In Sanga-based oral histories, four pairs of humans (produced by nomo spirits), multiple pairs of animals, and the seeds of nurturing plants and trees were all escorted to Earth on the back of a rainbow/serpent. In Dogon oral and visual art, couples symbolize alliances, harmony, and the continuation of life.

Sacrifice is another theme that Dolo paints as universal. In Dogon oral histories, the primordial spirit Nomo’s body is torn into pieces by Ama to cleanse the world of Ogo’s incestuous offenses against his mother, the Earth. The artist compares this legend to the Great Flood in ancient Hebrew texts, which cleansed the Earth of past wrongs.

Dolo’s installation Components of the World should not be viewed as an illustration of myth. Instead, the artist uses myth and shared cultural histories as tools to express the visible and less visible components at play in all civilizations. From his perspective, not respecting the spaces and rights to existence of all God’s creatures can lead to disaster in any region of the world.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes of Amahigueré Dolo derive from the author’s tape-recorded studio sessions with the artist in Ségou, Mali, during the summers of 2006–8 or the 2010 and 2011 academic years.
  2. Hélène Leloup, “L’identité Dogon,” Dogon, ed. Hélène Leloup (Paris: Musée du Quai Branly; Paris: Somogy, 2011), 89.
  3. Leloup identifies the Yaye sculptures as the work of the Nongom peoples between the 15th to the 17th centuries. Out of a very limited pool of sculptures, she classifies Nongom style as monumental, organic, composed of minu wood, with a clear patina. Anthropologists Jacky Bouju and Bruno Martenelli identify “nongom/Nongom” as a Dogon term for the Kalamse in the Eastern Seno plain (Burkina Faso). See Hélène Leloup, et al., Dogon Statuary (Strasbourg: D. Amez, 1994), 47; Jacky Bouju, “Qu'est-ce que ‘l'ethnie’ dogon?,” in Cahiers des Sciences Humaines, Special Issue: Identités et appartenances dans les sociétés sahéliennes, ed. C. Fay, 31, no. 2 (1995): 335, n16; Bruno Martinelli, “Trames d’Appartenances et chaîne d’identité,” in Cahiers de Sciences Humaines 31, no. 2 (1995): 369. For alternative interpretations of the Yaye sculptures, see Jacky Bouju and Sidiki Tinta, “Some Questions for Dogon Art Experts,” in Dogon (Paris: Éditions Dapper, 1994), 241.
  4. “Statue Hermaphrodite Dogon,” catalog information 35.105.106, Musée du Quai Branly Archival Collection, Paris, France.
  5. Solange de Ganay, “Notes sur le culte du Lebe chez les Dogon de Soudan Français,” Journal de la Société des Africanistes 7, no. 2 (1937): 206; Denise Paulme and Déborah Lifszyc, “La fêtes des Somailles en 1935 chez les Dogon de Sanga,” Journal de la Société des Africanistes 6, no. 1 (1936): 96.
  6. Lieutenant Louis Desplagnes, Le Plateau Central Nigérien, une mission archéologique et ethnographique au Soudan Français (Paris: Émile Larose, 1907), 34.
  7. “The idea of pulling, that’s the gobo. One puts it there to attract rain, bring rain. It symbolizes water. There are some with two branches, others with three, with four. Spirals like this represent clouds. The little iron hooks create noise [like chimes, associated with thunder]. There is thunder. One provokes rain with the sound” (Amahigueré Dolo, personal communication).
  8. According to Jacky Bouju, “A pegu from time immemorial involved the sacrifice of a person standing in a hole in the ground and in whose skull a metallic hook was planted. The iron object lodged in the skull pulls rain and positive forces towards the land.” Based on her field work in Piniari, Hélène Leloup writes, “pégué signifies ‘fixed’— where the ceremony of human sacrifice took place. This one was buried upright except for the head, on which one attached a large iron hook” (translated by author). See Jacky Bouju, “Fondation et territorialité: Instauration et controle rituel des frontières (Dogon Karambe, Mali),” in La construction religieuse du territoire, ed. J.-F. Vincent, D. Dory, and R. Verdier (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995), 355, cited in Lawrence Douny, “The Role of Earth Shrines in the Socio-Symbolic Construction of the Dogon Territory: Towards a Philosophy of Containment,” in Anthropology and Medicine 18, no. 2 (2011): 172; Leloup, Dogon, 117.
  9. According to Dogon art specialist Polly Richards, inserting a gobo in a mask offers protection to the object’s owner, but it comes with many restrictions and responsibilities. The hook, placed nearby an altar during blood sacrifice and later attached to the headpiece (emina ku), spiritually “entrusts the mask to the altar.” See Polly Richards, “What’s in a Dogon Mask?” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 49/50 (2006): 98, 108.
  10. Gobo are commonly lodged in a figural sculpture’s abdomen or head and placed on andugo altars. Sacrifices to nomo are made at andugo altars in order to appeal for rain. See Germaine Dieterlen et Solange de Ganay, Le Génie des Eaux chez les Dogons, Miscellanea Africana Lebaudy, no. 5 (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1942), 33-34.
  11. Douny and Huet focus on the earth shrine’s role in sectoring off civilized space from the wild, spirit-inhabited bush. De Ganay concentrates on the role of buried tomb dust in serving as “a kind of ferment that would communicate its qualities on the new terrain” (translated by author). See Jean Christophe Huet, Villages perchés des Dogons du Mali: Habitat, espace, society (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994), 144; Laurence Douny, “The Role of Earth Shrines,” 172; shrine types are distinguished in Walter E.A. van Beek, “Dogon Religion,” in Regards sur les Dogon du Mali, ed. R. Bedaux and J.D. van der Waals (Leiden: Rijkmuseum voor Vokenkunde, 2003), 96; Solange de Ganay, “Notes sur la culte,” Journal de la Société des Africanistes 7, no. 2 (1937): 206, 208.
  12. Douny writes that animal blood and millet gruel are both acknowledged as living materials that actively transfer the life forces (nyama) of the original plant and animal to the shrine. See Douny, “The Role of Earth Shrines,” 169. According to the Dogon, one can survive on only millet in times of famine longer than any other food, a factor that contributes to its religious connections with human survival (Amahigueré Dolo, personal communication).
  13. The Gobo mixed-media series was made in collaboration with French sculptor Alain Kirili for the Oeuvres à Quatres Mains exhibition at Centre Culturel Français (CCF). See Alain Kirili, Mémoires de Sculpteur (Paris: École National Superieur des Beaux-Arts, 2007).
  14. Narien II, a sculpture carved from caïsédra wood, 45 x 45 x 45 cm, was exhibited at the contemporary African art exhibition titled African Scenes 1 at Hotêl Marcel Dassault in Paris. “Even the earth worries,” confides Amahigueré Dolo, “she always expresses her love. She equally expresses her concerns for being mistreated.”
  15. Jean-Louis Paudrat noted that many Dogon sculptures with arms raised were listed as “amà gobo dége” in catalog entries whether or not a gobo hook was actually included in the sculpture. Could this indicate that the raised-arm gesture and the iron hook could encourage the same spiritual results? See Jean-Louis Paudrat, “Résonances mythiques dans la statuaire du pays dogon,” in Dogon, ed. Michel Roussin and Germaine Dieterlen (Paris: Musée Dapper, 1994), 64.
  16. A monumental depiction of the fox’s paw also adorns the entrance of the Nanrin sanctuary (near Banani) and the sacred grotto of Kommo donu. See Fernando Fagnola, “Les sanctuaires de Sangui-Golo,” in Bedaux and van der Walls, eds., Regards sur les Dogon du Mali, 74.
  17. This symbolism can be distinguished from the general use of horse imagery to honor the wealth, military might, and superior abilities to connect with Ama and spirits through trance of the spiritual and political leader (hogon) . Horse imagery also appears in some versions of genesis accounts. See Nadine Martinez, Écritures africaines esthétique et fonction des écritures dogon, bamana et sénoufo (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2010), 168; Paudrat, “Résonances mythiques,” 72–73.
  18. Angels appear regularly in imported Islamic chromolithographs, reverse glass paintings, and other imported Islamic materials by the 19th century. Since Muslim influence dates back to the 8th century, angel imagery most likely has an even longer history. Christian Protestants settled in Sanga in 1931. Catholics arrived in the 1940s. See Amadou Kizito Togo, L’Assault des “nouvelles” religions au pays Dogon (Torino: L’Harmattan, 2011), 27.