Installation of ReCollecting Dogon at the Menil Collection, 2017.


by Paul R. Davis

The Dogon peoples live in more than 1,500 rural villages and urban centers throughout the Bandiagara, Mopti, and Douentza regions in the West African country of Mali. A stunningly vertical, almost-1650-foot-tall sandstone cliff separates the arid Séno-Gondo plain from the rocky formations on the plateau of Dogon country (Pays Dogon), an area of the Bandiagara region designated in 1989 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Oral histories and archaeological findings suggest the Dogon peoples migrated to the area in waves and settled in the region between the 13th and 15th centuries, displacing and likely intermixing with existing inhabitants. Islamic rulers of the Mali and Songhai Empires, as well as smaller localized kingdoms, controlled much of West Africa during this period, and the steep cliffs are thought to have provided refuge for the newcomers.

By the late 19th century, France occupied parts of the Bandiagara region as a colonial military outpost. Introducing taxation, forced labor, military service recruitment, and French-language education, colonial administrators could declare by 1910 that “from this point forward the Habé can be considered subdued.”(1) Until the 1930s, most Europeans and Americans knew the Dogon peoples as the Habé or Habbe (sing. Kado). Colonial administrators borrowed the term from the Islamized Fula peoples (Peulh in French), who used the name Habé to derogate neighboring Dogon peoples as peasants and infidels. The attribution of “Dogon” given to objects with little or no provenance information is likewise a convenient handle for the multifaceted cultural landscape in the Bandiagara region. It consolidates multiple groups of peoples speaking more than 30 languages and whose social institutions can vary tremendously. The historical construction of the term and the substantial diversity in the region has prompted anthropologists and linguistic specialists to question the predominant use of Dogon as a unifying category of cultural identity or so-called tribe.(2) The use of the word “peoples” is an acknowledgment of this complexity.

Objects and the collecting display of objects are integral to existence in the Bandiagara region. Hunters accumulate the skulls of their kills, exhibiting them embedded in the earth facades of their homes. The spectacle has now become a favorite photographic opportunity for tourists, but it more importantly affirms the hunter’s proficiency in a precarious natural world. Interviewed about traditions of inheritance, women in the region explain, “it was important that their most treasured possessions were displayed in this way [as part of the funerals] and subsequently inherited by their sisters, daughters, and even grand-daughters, as this would be how they were remembered.”(3) In the Bandiagara region, therefore, collections of objects can help define an individual’s social identity and can elicit powerful memories.

During the 20th century, the society and visual culture of the Dogon peoples captured the imaginations of Europeans and Americans, and the ReCollecting Dogon exhibition at the Menil Collection and this digital publication are investigations of these historical and imaginative territories. The history of collecting art from Africa often reveals more about how peoples in Europe and America perceived and valued objects than the artistic practices of indigenous peoples on the continent and how they change over time. Reflecting on the reception of art from Africa in the United States, art historian Carol Magee likened the collected object to the concept of a souvenir. A thing or token kept and cherished as a reminder, the English noun derives from the French word souvenir, which translates as “memory” or “recollection,” and its reflexive verb se souvenir or “to remember.” Magee writes: “The souvenir, then, serves as the object of longings. It is the thing that is focused on in re-presenting the past or in imagining the future.”(4) ReCollecting Dogon, the English title of the exhibition and this publication, embraces these notions of memory made possible by collecting. Works in the exhibition serve the same function, they epitomize the powerful role objects play in the creation of knowledge, the imperfections of remembering, and the slippages that occur between cultures and languages.

Between Europeans’ initial contact with the Dogon peoples in the late 19th century and the incredible expansion of the Western market for art from the African continent during the mid-20th century, the visual culture of Dogon peoples became a muse for the imaginations of European and American audiences. Writing about his encounter in Jungle Ways: A First Hand Account of Cannibalism and the Secret Ceremonies of Jungle Magic Practiced by Primitive Savages (1931), American author William B. Seabrook’s description of Dogon peoples neatly disregards their centuries of intercultural networks in West Africa, including over 35 years of interactions with Europeans.

These were true African Negroes, so-called primitives, more isolated from civilization and white colonial influence than even the forest blacks of the thickest jungle, but they were not like any blacks or primitives I had ever known.(5)

Seabrook’s portrayal, however admiring and entertaining, fails as a historical account of the Dogon peoples. Instead, it captures the popular American and European fascination with the raw, exotic Otherness of Africans at the height of colonialism. The same allure animated the several million visitors to the 1931 Exposition Colonial Internationale in Paris. Concurrent with the highly publicized departure from France of ethnographer Marcel Griaule’s Dakar-Djibouti Mission that year, the fair boasted re-creations of African and Asian villages populated by indigenous peoples, recreations of the monumental architecture of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Djenné in Mali, and a performing troupe of masked dancers from the Bandiagara region.

Marcel Griaule (1898–1956) was a defining figure in the European history and popular reception of the Dogon peoples. As anthropologist Éric Jolly recounts in his contribution to this publication, Griaule directed multiple ethnographic collecting expeditions to the Bandiagara region, beginning with the Dakar-Djibouti Mission in 1931. He and his team, which included Surrealist writer Michel Leiris (1901–1990) and ethnomusicologist André Schaeffner (1895–1980) among others, amassed several thousand objects and popularized elaborate accounts about Dogon peoples. Today, numerous publications, films, and exhibitions chronicle and, in some instances, invent histories of the Dogon peoples. For their germinal 2004 exhibition Regards sur les Dogon du Mali, Rogier Bedaux and Diderik van der Waals estimated the number of internet sites devoted to the Dogon peoples to be 75,000; this has now increased exponentially to more than 4 million. Celebrated for their acrobatic performances of masks, deftly carved figural sculptures, architecture, and rich cosmology, the visual culture of the Dogon peoples is one of the most studied, documented, collected, and mythologized from the continent of Africa.

The exhibition ReCollecting Dogon showcases arresting works of sculpture, architectural elements, body adornments, masks, and other objects attributed to the Dogon peoples. Collected by museum founders John and Dominique de Menil in the United States and Europe from the 1950s through the 1970s, the works convey indigenous aesthetic philosophies in which the materiality and manipulation of objects are vital to the continuity of daily life and the sacred. They also recall the formidable legacies of colonialism and the complex power dynamics of ethnography that made the culture of Dogon peoples accessible to the imaginings of Western audiences. Recognizing the limitations of representing Dogon peoples with decontextualized objects collected by and for Euro-Americans, the exhibition strives to destabilize the historical authority of ethnographic display. Critical publications by Marcel Griaule, field recordings of Dogon music by André Schaeffner, photographs of Dogon objects and people by Walker Evans (1903–1975), Germaine Dieterlen (1903–1999), and Mario Carrieri (b. 1932), as well as other archival materials make visible the colonial power of ethnography and collecting that shaped current understanding of visual culture from the Bandiagara region. Highlighting contemporary voices from the area, ReCollecting Dogon also includes newly commissioned masks, videos by Sérou Dolo of recent mask performances, and work by Malian artists Amahigueré Dolo (b. 1955) and Alaye Kéné Atô (b. 1967). Documentary, deeply personal, and symbolic, these two artists’ works are counterpoints to the framing of Dogon peoples as a homogenous and historical ethnographic subject.

An unassuming phonographic record in ReCollecting Dogon is a compelling example of the many transformations generated by ethnographic collecting. Included by Griaule in his 1938 thesis Masques dogons (Dogon Masks), the record’s surface depicts the phrased articulations and musical notations for the acrobatic performances of the kanaga. In her essay on masks and performances for ReCollecting Dogon, Polly Richards describes the kanaga as one of the most highly regarded masks associated with funerary celebrations (dama) because of the dancer’s dynamic performance. The music on the record supposedly introduced readers to the syncopated drums that would accompany the performance. What listeners actually hear on the record is a simulation: European musicians in Paris plays the drum rhythms, not a trained Dogon musician in the Bandiagara region.(6) As a counterpoint to the record’s mediated reproduction of Dogon rhythms, Dogon music is playing on a loop in the gallery and on this page. Recorded on wax cylinders by Schaeffner in the area of Sangha during the 1930s and since digitized by the Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie (CREM), the recordings are music by local musicians, such as Antando Dolo, who was Schaeffner’s principal informant.(7) Examples of old and new kanaga masks, Schaeffner’s period field recordings, and Griaule’s record suggest the layered historical narratives and interpretations that impinge on Euro-American understandings of the Dogon peoples as shown in the exhibition and examined here.

Over the last three decades, scholars such as Jacky Bouju, Gaetano Ciarcia, James Clifford, Ferdinando Fagnola, Isaïe Dougnon, Éric Jolly, Polly Richards, and Walter van Beek have revisited earlier ethnographic studies and demonstrated that accounts of Dogon peoples like those put forward in Seabrook’s pulp travel novel and the African villages replicated in Paris were often less than representative. Malian historian Isaïe Dougnon’s contribution to ReCollecting Dogon challenges the primacy and value of a historically entrenched definition of Dogon culture by focusing on movement and cultural shifts. He highlights profound social changes in the Bandiagara region generated by local, national, and international responses to challenging economic, political, and environmental circumstances. As Dougnon stresses, these same forces continue to impact the ways in which a person understands his or her identity as Dogon and how she or he relates to others the community.

Artworks by Amahigueré Dolo and Alaye Kéné Atô contribute significant contemporary voices that engage issues of migration, cultural history, and social change. ReCollecting Dogon is the first exhibition in a US museum for both Malian artists, and their works are counterpoints to this project’s historical reconsiderations of Dogon visual culture. A self-taught artist, Atô’s deeply personal, symbolic, and colorful works on paper emerge out of a compulsion to draw that followed a near-death crisis and a relationship with Bernard Pataux, a French artist and former director of the National Art School in Dakar, Senegal. Dolo’s Components of the World (Adouron Bew), 2007, is composed of 86 wood figures planted in a bed of red ocher earth.(8) Art historian Jessica Hurd sees visual strategies branching out from these artists’ heritage to engage with intercultural visual histories. As she details in her text, Components of the World is a progression of Dolo’s artistic strategy to expose viewers to the multivalent and liminal world we inhabit.

The waves leave shells on the beach. The child collects the shells, because to him they are beautiful and mysterious … treasures from the depth, from an unknown world. Wave after wave has brought to our shores beautiful and mysterious treasures from unknown worlds.

Dominique de Menil’s introduction to the catalogue for a 1962 exhibition of their growing collection of art from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas at the Museum of Primitive Art in New York is an apt metaphor for the colonial history and selective processes of collecting through which the acquisition of Dogon visual culture occurred during the 20th century. Waves transform the sandy landscape, erasing and making new; each one mixing newly arrived shells with ones deposited much earlier. The photographs, films, sound recordings, and other archival materials in ReCollecting Dogon are traces of this imperfect, evolving history. The essays gathered here continue the reflection on the history of collecting and the changing landscape in which Dogon peoples are both conscious of their cultural heritage and engaged in creating new futures.

  1. “Désormais les Habé peuvent être considerés comme soumis… .” Quoted in Robert Arnaud, Le Roman vrai de tabi: Journal d’une expédition en pays Dogon (18 septembre–26 décembre 1920), ed. André Brocher (Aix-en-Provence, France: Association des amis des archives d’outre-mer, 2016), 24.
  2. See Jacky Bouju, “Qu’est-ce que ‘l'ethnie’ dogon?” Cahiers des Sciences Humaines 31, no. 2 (1995): 329–63.
  3. Paul J. Lane, “Household Assemblages, Lifecycles, and the Remembrance of Things Past among the Dogon of Mali,” The South African Archaeological Bulletin 61, no. 183 (2006): 49–50.
  4. Carol Magee, Africa in the American Imagination: Popular Culture, Racialized Idenities, and African Visual Culture (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 106–7.
  5. William B. Seabrook, Jungle Ways: A First Hand Account of Cannibalism and the Secret Ceremonies of Jungle Magic Practiced by Primitive Savages (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1931), 248.
  6. Éric Jolly, email to the author, March 12, 2016. Jolly cited Brice Gérard, Histoire de l’ethnomusicologie en France: 1929–1961 (Paris: L’Harmattan 2014), 113; and Jean Jamin, André Schaeffner (1895–1980) (Paris: Musée de l’homme, 1980). See also, Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 294–95.
  7. See Éric Jolly, Démasquer la société dogon: Sahara-Soudan, janvier–avril 1935, Les Carnets de Bérose, no. 4 (Charenton-Le-Pont, France: DPRPS, Directions générale des patrimoines, 2014), 36, 49.
  8. Dolo’s Components of the World is exhibited separately from the special exhibition ReCollecting Dogon, in one of the museum’s permanent galleries of art from Africa.
So you want to know what constitutes a Dogon’s soul? You will learn nothing, it will only cost you money.
Dommo Wolomo, Andioumbolo village, Bandiagara region, early 1960s

[30 seconds of silence before each]

Dance Rhythms of Dogon Masks (Rythmes de danses de masques dogon), Sangha village, 1931. Compiled by André Schaeffner. Audio, 4 min. 39 sec. Courtesy of the Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.

Dance Rhythms of Dogon Masks (Rythmes de danses de masques dogon), Sangha village, 1931. Compiled by André Schaeffner. Audio, 4 min. 27 sec. Courtesy of the Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.

Drums and Flutes (Tambours et flutes), Sangha village, 1931. Compiled by André Schaeffner. Audio, 2 min. 14 sec. Courtesy of the Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.