The Status of Dogon Visual Culture

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

Binu or lineage shrine in a Dogon village in Mali, 1986. Photo by Mary Kujawski Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.


Religious structures constitute one of the marvels of Dogon expression. This binu sanctuary in the village of Sanga, Mali, is the locus of great spiritual energy. Ancient ancestors reside in such a shrine, and offerings of beer and sacrificial blood are made to spill over the top of the façade as the spirits are implored to bring fertility and prosperity to the community. The façade is purposefully anthropomorphic, for one enters the “mouth” of the sanctuary as a threshold to divinity. Two eye-like openings may refer to Sirius and its mysterious double star (although there is substantial controversy about this point—see Roberts 1987-1988), while the checkerboard painting covering the façade is a key multi-referential symbol of Dogon philosophy. Like the crossing of warp and woof threads in weaving, the pattern is said to reflect the way the Word of God was first pronounced to establish primal order (Griaule 1970).