Funerary rite in Mali’s Sangha region, at Dini village, 2012. Photo by Serou Dolo


by Polly Richards

The society of the masks is a picture of the whole world. For all men, all activities, all crafts, all ages, all foreigners, all animals can be carved as masks or woven into hoods.

—Ogotemmêli, a Dogon elder, quoted in Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1948)

The Dogon are famous for their masks—and hundreds of these striking, stylized headpieces are today held in museum collections throughout the world. But for Dogon peoples, a mask is more than just a disguise for the head. It consists of the dancer’s outfit including a head-covering, the costume, dancing accessories, and the mask performance.

Following a death, Dogon peoples bury the dead immediately. They dance emina, masks carved from wood and woven from hibiscus fiber, as part of a sequence of rites that are conducted for men long after they are buried. Mask dances are the highlight of these post-burial rites, including elaborate ceremonies held for men, known as dama, that mark the end of mourning. In addition, they are part of official celebrations such as the openings of schools and clinics, and, in the peak holiday season, mask performances are given for visiting tourists in return for a fee.

A second type of mask, called sanaguroy—usually made from fresh leaves of the sa tree, or African grape, the first tree to bear new leaves at the end of the dry season—are performed just before the rainy season begins. The tradition of sanaguroy ranges from just a playful activity to a more formal stage of initiation prior to a boy’s entrance into the mask association. Its performance coincides with key agricultural rituals that must take place before the farming season can begin (agu). The sanuguroy mask generally runs through the villages, chasing non-initiated children with long whiplike canes. More elaborate dances—when they occur—are in loose imitation of the emina.

Entering The Mask Society

If I had not made payments to join the masks, I would be teased for being like a woman, and boys younger than me in leaf and fiber masks would have the right to chase and beat me.

—Catholic man from Idiely-Na village

Until the late 20th century, a Dogon man’s participation in the activities of masks was obligatory and indicated his progression in society. It was an outward affirmation of his manhood, thus further contributing to the gendering of a society in which specific activities are associated with either men or women. For the male in Dogon villages, as in many African social environments, the moment of circumcision marks the beginning of his transition from boyhood to manhood and is the point at which he can begin to participate in the masking association. Circumcisions used to be performed every three to four years on boys aged 12 to 15. Nowadays, this takes place earlier in a boy’s life: consequently a boy will be allowed to enter the mask association only when elders consider him to be mature enough.

Today, for Dogon men who have converted from the indigenous religion to Christianity or Islam, the level of involvement in the mask activities is left to individual discretion. Nonetheless, even if practicing Christians and Muslims do not actively participate in masked dances, a degree of social pressure to conform still influences their making of payments to the mask association as an outward show of their support. Payment continues to be a mark of respect to the elders of the community, a sign of the status of one’s family, and a demonstration of manhood.

Mask dances are usually enjoyed by women and non-initiated children, as spectators, from the recognized safety of boulders and rooftops overlooking the dancing ground (tei). In principle, all children and almost all women are prohibited from approaching masks, with the threat of punishment from elders and being beaten by the masks if they do. The exception to the rule is a select group of female initiates (yasigine, sisters of the mask) who are the only women permitted to approach and dance with the masks, a status granted to them in honor of the original discovery of the mask by a woman.

Mask Energy

Giru-banu-go ninnyia wom . . . giru-banu-go ninnyia wom lawa.

(I was afraid of the fearsome aspect. . . I was afraid of the fearsome aspect of masks.)

Dama song (in donno so language)

Emina are believed to possess nyama (life force) or pangan (power) that makes them fearsome—a power that can be physically dangerous or beneficial. The power of masks derives from many different aspects, including the materials and processes of mask-making, the act of entrusting a mask headpiece or costume to an altar, and the masquerade performance. Because of the energy with which emina are imbued, they are dangerous to certain people, altars, and crops. Therefore the behavior and movements of the emina performers within and around the village are severely restricted. Emina may only move along designated village paths, avoiding those in which key altars are situated; and these same routes are also designated for menstruating women, deceased persons, newborn children, and smiths, leatherworkers, and dyers. Nor may emina cross the field belonging to the ritual chief (ogono), or fields where crops may be ripening. Prohibitions also restrict the movements of sanaguroy, who are perceived as having less nyama than emina, although nyama is still present. While sanaguroy enjoy slightly more freedom than emina, they may not enter the households of women or children. Similarly, all villagers must be careful to prevent any part of the sanaguroy, such as a fallen leaf, from entering the courtyard of dwellings, at the risk of causing a bad harvest and or bringing misfortune to the inhabitants concerned.

Mask Dances (Emina Goo and Emina Yogoro)

For all performances of emina, mask members enter the village or dancing ground in order of descending age, led by the oldest physically active member present. Masks then dance in an established order, with similar mask types taking their turn, character by character, again in descending age, appearing either in solo performances or in groups.

In all performances of Dogon masquerade, the relationship between audience and masquerader is of key importance. The performance of masquerade during a dama is highly competitive, and the participants hope to gain the appreciation of the audience, who, locals and visitors alike, discuss the quality of the dances and pass judgments on them.

Some Dogon peoples make a distinction between two main types of performance: emina goo, the mask dance itself, and emina yogoro, which are emina that enact a satirical performance intended to make audiences laugh. A prime example of emina goo is the kanaga goo, or kanaga mask dance, regarded as one of the most challenging: it is intended purely to show off the performers’ masculinity and prowess. The highlight of the acrobatic dance performed by the kanaga is the moment when he rotates the headpiece 360 degrees, swinging it to the ground and then up again in a swift movement that is difficult to execute. When masks such as the kanaga dance solo, people shout “eee” (“yes”) and chatter in loud appreciation to encourage individuals who perform particularly well. If they do, members of the audience might tip them with money in praise of their skill; and, as encouragement, elders might strike the ground with a stick at the feet of mask society dancers. Those who are less proficient will be chastised on the spot: an elder may call out in the secret language of the mask society (sigi so), to criticize a dancer. Elders from each ward gather after the final dance is over to decide who was the best individual dancer or the champion (ine sige) and which was the best village ward—and heated discussions about this continue in the village long after the event. For those who know and recognize a performer, his status is thus heightened by the quality of his performance.

When an emina yogoro is performed, the distance provided by the mask enables a subversion of behavioral norms to occur. For example, during the comic performance of the black monkey, dege yogoro, in Amani in 2000, the performer held a carved wooden phallus in his hand and performed rude gestures with it, to uproarious effect. Audience members played up to the mask, and elders responded like the parents of a naughty child, chastising the mask and banishing it from the dance arena. The mask left and waited a few moments before returning to tease and torment the audience members again, and the play-acting continued.

At the heart of the dama and other public rites at which masks appear are rites that are enacted in private, often by a few elders, either at or after dusk, to ensure the final departure of the deceased’s soul from the world of the living to the world of the dead. The emina goo and emina yogoro dances provide the public focus, spectacle, and ceremonial framing of these rituals.

Excerpted from Dogon Now: Masks in Motion by Polly Richards (forthcoming)
All photographs © 2017 by the photographer

Video Links

Mask Stories, a short film directed by Polly Richards in which Dogon people talk about their mask tradition

Mask Stories (15 minutes)

Dogon Mask Dance: Dama in Djiguibombo Village, Mali, March 2010, Excerpts from 22 Days of Celebration

Dogon Mask Dance Part 1 (18 minutes)

Dogon Mask Dance Part 2 (10 minutes)

Both these films were directed by Polly Richards and developed by the Museum for African Art, New York (The Africa Center), and the National Museum of Mali, Bamako.