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. Basket. Private Collection of Christopher Culy.

The Dogon invest objects they use everyday with meaning. This Dogon basket is of a type that is made by most of the people of the Western Sudan, with a rectangular bottom formed of two layers of thick grass, and a circular rim. Following the cosmology proposed by Ogotemmeli (Griaule 1970), the bottom of a basket like this refers to the realm of humankind in which man has imposed order on the natural world, while the circular rim represents the circular rim of the world (the horizon line, that is) which the Dogon see when they stand at the top of the cliffs near which they live. The sides of the basket connect the celestial and terrestrial realms, and so the basket becomes a model of Dogon cosmology. However, because symbols are always multireferential, as Victor Turner (1967) explained so evocatively, the same qualities of a basket might well be interpreted differently by someone else. Culture constantly changes as people update old ideas to meet new circumstances, and as Polly Richards (2005: 48) notes, “tradition is itself open to adaptation, a quality that in fact guarantees its survival.” Nonetheless, many of the objects one sees in Dogon communities, from buildings to farm fields to baskets, reflect fundamental Dogon ideas about themselves, their origin, and their relation to the supernatural world.