The Status of Dogon Visual Culture

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

Mali and Burkina Faso; Dogon peoples

Ancestor couple

Wood

H. 75 cm (30")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.356

The arts of Dogon people of southeastern Mali and northwestern Burkina Faso are among the best known of all African groups. Figures and masks are found in most public collections of African art, and an extensive literature has been created for nearly a century, mostly by French ethnographers, but with important studies in or translated into English. Ongoing scholarly debate concerning Dogon art (e.g. Laude 1973, Clifford 1988, Ezra 1988, Van Beek 1991, Apter 2005) adds significance to evocative objects such as this male-and-female couple. To what degree can such an object be understood according to the deep (albeit falsely timeless) analysis of religious symbolism conducted by French researchers, and to what degree must we content ourselves with how Dogon use and explain such objects today? We shall seek a fruitful synthesis between the opposed sides of this debate between Western schools of thought. We shall also consider aesthetic changes instigated by cultural tourism, labor migration, recent conversion to Islam and Christianity by some Dogon, and ongoing civil strife in northern Mali that has disrupted more ordinary pursuits (Richards 2005, 2006).