Adult Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Mali; Dogon artist



H. 74.3 cm (29 ¼”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.350

In many African societies, initiations punctuate adult life. Secrets of philosophy, problem solving, and healing are divulged progressively so that highest-ranking elders know all there is to know about their culture. Among Dogon, “knowledge is acquired in successive stages of 'words more and more explicit and complete’” (Griaule and Dieterlen 1986: 68). Based on many years of research among Dogon, the French ethnographer Marcel Griaule called such progressively acquired knowledge “la parole claire,” for it represents the deepest, “clearest words” of Dogon philosophy. Yet rather than being fixed in time and therefore static, such secret thought is always adaptive, helping people to cope with new circumstances as they are encountered. Initiatory secrets are therefore powerfully transformative, as are the visual and performative arts through which they are articulated (Apter 2005: 96).