The Status of Dogon Visual Culture

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

Dogon granaries, Mali, 1986. Photo by Mary Kujawski Roberts and Allen F. Roberts. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.

The Dogon granaries in the foreground of this photo have new roofs, suggesting that they are full of good things to eat. Such a display of stout and well-kept buildings proclaims a man's ability to care for his family. Granaries protect grain from humidity, vermin, and theft, but for Dogon, they also refer to enduring values as presented in origin myths. According to a Dogon sage named Ogotemmeli (Griaule 1970), human life as it is now known began when one of the primordial beings called Nommo chose to defy God (whom Dogon called Amma) by stealing a piece of the sun and bringing fire to Earth. The Nommo fitted out a granary as an ark holding all species of animals, plants, and people, but God furiously hurled thunderbolts and the ark crashed, dispersing its contents to all proper places on Earth as Dogon know it today. As enticing as such stories are, however, contemporary scholars debate the degree to which they were ever as widespread as Marcel Griaule made them seem (see Clifford 1988, Apter 2005). It is more likely that versions of cosmogonic myths differed from community to community, and were updated to help people understand and cope with changing circumstances.