By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Masks at a funeral. Dogon peoples; Mali, 1992. Photo by Victoria Rovine.

The ability to alter the function, form, or meaning of an artwork without compromising its essential integrity is one of the characteristics of so-called “traditional” African art. Even in remote rural areas where there are fewer motivations or stimuli for change, art and performance have always been in states of perpetual social transformation. Among Dogon peoples, for example, elaborate funerary masquerades called dama, formerly performed annually to honor deceased members of the community, have been modified to meet the demands of a growing tourist industry. Though the masquerades are superficially the same in form and spectacle, Dogon attribute new secular significance to what has been, and continues to be, the most sacred of all their rituals. Charismatic mask forms and choreographies with the most complex cosmological meaning are rendered accessible to foreign audiences who sometimes purchase the masks following the performances.