Art History 101

Art and Culture of the Dogon People of Africa

Urvi Chheda 4 August 2021 min Read

African art and culture had been a driving inspiration to European modern artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Amedeo Modigliani, among others. The appealing factor lies in many raw, visual, fetishized pursuits and compelling cultural narratives. Dogons originated for the first time from the West bank of Niger around 1490 CE, as Mossi people. They are known in art for masked performances, figural sculptures, architecture, and cosmology.

Dogon sculpture, Standing figure holding object above head, Dogon peoples, Mali, Bandiagara escarpment, 19th-early 20th century, carved wood, gift of Valerie Franklin, Courtesy San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA, USA.
Dogon peoples, Standing figure holding object above head, 19th-early 20th century, gift of Valerie Franklin, Courtesy San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA, USA.

Who Are the Dogon People of Africa?

The Dogon people of Africa originated for the first time in ancient Egypt where they traveled from the Mande Kingdom. They had settled by the side of sandstone cliffs within the Bandiagara Escarpment during the 15-16th centuries. Escaping from the encroaching Islamic rulers, they found solace in the terrain. With the bluffs at 1600 feet tall(487 m) and 90 miles long (144 km), these cliffs possess numerous caves. The place served as the perfect location to hide from enemies.

Dogon is popular due to ancient tales based on human beings as well as extraterrestrial contact. According to the legend, the race was known as Nommo, which appeared from the brightest star, Sirius. Arriving on Earth, they shared information about cosmology and the solar system. All these creatures were also part of Babylonian and Sumerian myths.

Most importantly, before Galileo, it was Dogon who knew planets and stellarium facts. They were the ones who identified Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings. They also knew the fact that the sun is at the center of the solar system.

 The funeral rite called Damas by Dogon people
The funeral rite called Damas by Dogon people. Bino and Fino.

Religious Beliefs

The religion of Dogon is generally based on oral traditions, which vary with Dogon clans. It has been investigated that Nommo is the creator who came in the spaceships from the sky. Hence, according to the ancient belief, they shall return to their planet someday.

Dogon is based in three main sections and each one of them incorporates mask making. This includes:

  • Awa is the cult of the dead in which members dance with their liturgical masks. They normally dance on the death anniversary or the funeral ceremonies to help the deceased soul reach peacefully at the resting place.
  • Lebe is the Earth God, dealing primarily with agriculture.
  • Binu is the protective and supernatural one, revealing itself in front of others in the shape of an animal.

Dogon mask, Kanaga Mask in three pieces, 20th century, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, USA.
Kanaga mask in three pieces, 20th century, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, USA. Photo by Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Kanaga mask dances.
Kanaga mask dances. Photo by Huib Blom/Menil.

Dogon Art: Mask and Myth

Dogon used numerous masks in the dama rituals. Generally, they represented different objects, characters, animals, or abstract concepts. Kanaga is the most popular Dogon mask. The whole shape of the Kanaga has layers of different meanings.

For a casual observer, the mask shows a bird with white wings and a dark forehead. Crossbars represent both legs and arms of God, which highlights the arrangement of the whole universe. The upper crossbar is for the heavens and the lower crossbar is for the Earth.

While performing, Kanaga dancers jumped up and then arc down the mask to touch the surface of the ground. This action represents Amma, which means giving life by representing the God creator.

Dogon circumcision cave painting, Mali, December 2006.
Dogon circumcision cave painting, Mali, December 2006. Photo by Senani P via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).