The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Status of Dogon Visual Culture

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

Mali; Dogon artist

Door panel


H. 87 cm (34 1/ 4”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.287

The scholarly argument about Dogon centers around the contrast between enduring religious symbolism, as developed by French researchers (e.g. Laude 1973), and the sort of contextual analysis of particular objects as used by particular individuals on particular occasions, that  British and American art historians would prefer (e.g. Ezra 1988, Richards 2005). This panel from a Dogon door depicts seven snake-like figures, one of which is evident only in the herringbone pattern. These are probably Nommo, the primordial beings created by God before humanity existed. Nommo stand for creativity, fertility, and purpose, and the missing Nommo may be the one who fled Heaven to begin human culture on Earth (Griaule 1970); but whose door was this, and why would that person wish to have a door decorated in this particular fashion? A history of decision and choice has been lost. Furthermore, if this door were still being used in a Dogon village but its original owner were now deceased, would its iconography be understood in the same way by contemporary Dogon observers?