|Dogon grieving figure
and information on Dogon sculpture
|The Dogon artist's ability to rearrange the human body to create a structured composition of geometric elements is epitomized by this figure. A
central cylinder constitutes both torso and seat; perfectly symmetrical L-shaped arms project in opposite directions from its midpoint to depict the
bent legs and arms.
This figure raises its arms to cover its face. Since interpretations of this gesture based on Dogon myth have proved to be problematic, a more
accurate meaning may perhaps be found by examining the gestures of everyday and ritual life among the Dogon.
Grieving Dogon women, like people all over the world, bury their faces in their hands at funerals (Griaule, 1938: 281). Dogon figures are often
placed on family ancestral altars (vageu), and it is possible that some may express the idea of mourning for the deceased relative through the
gesture of covering the face. It has been suggested that kneeling female figures may similarly convey the family's grief.
This figure's gesture also accords with a detailed account of the installation ceremony of a binu priest witnessed in 1937 (Ganay, 1942: 35—45).
During what must have been one of the most dramatic moments of the ritual, the new priest knelt on the roof of the binu sanctuary, surrounded by
priests of other binu ancestors. Two of the priests held his dugo—the stone or iron pendant that is his insignia of office—above his head and
poured millet porridge and chicken blood on it. With porridge and blood streaming over his head and shoulders, the priest came down from the
roof and knelt before the entrance to the sanctuary. At this point he raised his hands to his face to wipe away the sacrificial liquids (Ganay, 1942:
39). It is unclear to what extent Dogon art represents ritual gestures, just as it is not known how literally it illustrates myth, but this interpretation
suggests an interesting direction for future research.
Source: Art of the Dogon - Selections from the Wunderman Collection
|Provenance: ex McDonald-Levy Collection
17" tall x 4" wide x 6" deep
(See items from the McDonald-Levy
collection - link on my Favorite links page)
This piece is no longer in my collection
|Another example below of a male and
female figure in the same position.
This piece is still in the McDonald-Levy
|The other interpretation for these figures...
Figures making this gesture are frequently referred to as images of "Dyougou Serou," said to be a character from Dogon myth who committed
incest with his mother, the earth, and who therefore hides his face in shame. This often-repeated interpretation seems to have originated in Jean
Laude's studies of Dogon sculpture (Laude, 1964: 64; Laude, 1971: 217; Brooklyn Museum, 1973: nos.1-3). It has little basis in the copious
literature about Dogon myth and ritual, except for Michel Leiris' brief mention of a similar figure in the Musee de l'Homme. Leiris suggested that the
figure hides its face "'parce qu'il a honte,'" (because he is ashamed) but he did not specify why, not did he identify the figure with any particular
being or event in Dogon myth (Leiris, 1936: 194).(1)
Beginning in the mid-1950s, the mythical ancestor "Dyongou Serou" appears in some of the writings of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, and
this may be the source for Laude's misspelled identification of the image. Dyongou Serou, a hunter and healer, is one of the original eight
ancestors of mankind, along with Amma Serou, Lebe Serou, Binou Serou, and their four female twins whom they exchanged as wives. Of the four
males, Dyongou Serou is associated with Ogo (sometimes called the jackal, and later the Pale Fox), a member of the previous generation of
mythical beings who disturbed the order of the newly created universe by violating his placenta, the earth, thereby committing incest with his mother
(Griaule, 1965: 21—22; Griaule and Dieterlen, 1986: 209). Dyongou Serou followed Ogo's disruptive example by cultivating the forbidden grain,
fonio (Digitaria exilis), and stealing land from sacred fields. As a result of this transgression of the established order, Dyongou Serou died and
caused death to spread among mankind (Dieterlen, 1956: 110, 114, 118-19; Griaule and Dieterlen, 1986: 41, 51, 404 n. 327, 451).(2)
Nowhere in these accounts is the specific gesture of covering the face mentioned in connection with Dyongou Serou, nor is his remorse or shame
at his act described. There is no indication that, in Dogon terms, covering one's face is an appropriate expression of these emotions. Little is known
of the ritual context of figures performing this gesture, or whether the aspects of the myth relating to Dyongou Serou have any bearing on their
function. Given that the entire question of how mythological content is expressed in Dogon sculpture remains largely unanswered, interpreting
figures like this as a specific mythical being is problematical.
1. Quotation marks were used by Leiris in the original, making it unclear whether this was his own interpretation of the Musee de l'Homme figure or
an assumption based on information collected among the Dogon. In an autobiographical essay originally published in 1939, Leiris was very much
concerned with the idea of shame and with transcending the limitations society places on the individual, especially in regard to his sexual activities
(Leiris, 1984). This concern may have colored his view of the Dogon image.
2. In The Pale Fox, Griaule and Dieterlen state that as the first person to die, Dyongou Serou is the source of the Dogon institutions that deal with
death and masks, funerals, dama ceremonies, and the sigi ceremony held every sixty years (1986: M). Earlier studies of Dogon masks do not
mention Dyongou Serou at all, and the source of death among humanity is attributed to other mythical beings (Griaule, 1938; Dieterlen, 1941;
Leiris, 1948). The existence of many versions of the same myth jomplicates the already problematical task of interpreting Dogon visual imagety
through specific references to myth.
Published: Paris, Palais d'Orsay, 1977: lot 9.
|22- SEATED FIGURE COVERING ITS FACE
Wood, sacrificial materials
H. 5- 3/8 in. (13.7cm.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1977
|21. STANDING FIGURE COVERING ITS FACE
Wood, sacrificial materials H. 11 - 5/8 in. (29. 5cm.)
The Lester Wunderman Collection of Dogon Art
Dogon art presents a broad range of object types and styles. Among the human figures alone, some are well over life-size, while others are
barely a few inches in height. Their repertoire of gestures is also varied, and includes figures standing, kneeling, sitting, or riding, raising one
or both arms in a variety of poses, and holding or wearing articles related to their gender, age, occupation, or social status. In style they vary
from full-volumed, sensitively modeled sculptures that are highly descriptive in their details to works that are reduced to abstract geometric
shapes stripped of all but the barest references to human anatomy. The surfaces of Dogon sculptures also suggest that they are treated in a
variety of ways and may therefore have a range of meanings. While some works are smooth, oiled, and polished, others are thickly coated with
sacrificial materials, sometimes to the point of obscuring their sculptural form. The range of styles and imagery seen in Dogon sculpture
suggests that they embody richer and more varied references than the simple identification as images of Nommo would encompass. Even if
the ultimate meaning of Dogon art depends upon the concept of Nommo, as Griaule and Dieterlen and their followers propose, this meaning
can only be enriched by adding to it the many other levels of meaning that arise from the particular settings in which the objects are located.
The Dogon place wood figures depicting men and women on many different kinds of altars, most of which are dedicated to ancestors, either
real or mythical. Although figurative sculptures, called dege, are perhaps the most interesting types of Dogon art, varied in form and rich in
imagery, they are also among the least well documented. Few altars have been described in detail or illustrated; those that have been
described do not suggest any consistent pattern linking a particular style of figure or a specific posture or gesture with any one kind of altar.
There is also little information with which to identify the persons represented by the figures.
Each lineage possesses an altar containing figurative sculpture, which is dedicated to its founders and to subsequent members who have
died, known as vageu. In recounting the myth of the first person to die in human form, Griaule tells of how a wooden sculpture representing the
dead man was carved in order to provide a support for his soul and his vital force (nyama), which were released at his death. The figure was
placed on the man's rooftop terrace along with a pottery bowl for libations. As death spread throughout the land, similar figures and bowls were
placed on altars established by each lineage (Griaule, 1938: 171-72; Dieterlen, 1941: 18,22, 140; also Desplagnes, 1907:273). Photographs
and drawings of vageu altars show rather simplified, even cylindrical, stick like figures leaning against the wall of the shrine (Dieterlen, 1941:
pis. Vb and Vc, fig. 10). Along with the figures one also sees pottery bowls and small cups in which sacrificial liquids are offered to the
ancestors and small notched ladders so the spirits can climb to the rooftop altar; iron hooks (gobo), cylinders of red ocher, iron ornaments,
and pots of roots soaking in water are kept there also and are used in healing. Sacrifices are performed collectively on all these objects at
planting and harvest times, as well as by individuals who have inherited the souls of particular ancestors. The altars are kept in the ginna, or
lineage head's house, of which there are several in each village. An altar can be found on the upper story of the house, in a corner of the
living quarters, in the granary, in the courtyard, or even in a separate structure nearby (Paulme, 1940: 109-11; Dieterlen, 1941: 141-47).
Not all of a family's deceased members are commemorated on the vageu altar. The souls of women who died during pregnancy or childbirth
are considered dangerous, and the forces that cause such deaths are particularly contagious (Paulme, 1940: 531-36; Dieterlen, 1941: 195-
205; Ortoli, 1941). The souls of these women, called yaupilu (literally, "white women"), are enshrined in a separate sanctuary, usually in a cave
outside the village, and are cared for by a priest who is a skilled healer. Such a sanctuary contains the various pottery bowls, wooden sticks,
and staffs found on vageu altars, as well as anthropomorphic wood figures representing both men and women (Ganay, 1941: 132; Dieterlen,
1941: 199, pls. XIIIa XIIIb; Dieterlen, 1981: 16). Every year, sacrifices are made to this altar by those who have been cured of illnesses caused
by the spirits of the dead women, and the figures are completely smeared with the blood of the slaughtered sheep and goats.
While the vageu and yaupilu ancestors are actual deceased members of the family, the binu in whose shrines figure sculptures are also found
belong to the mythic era when humans were immortal (Dieterlen, 1941: 216—27; Ganay, 1942). Binu shrines or sanctuaries are separate
structures built in the courtyard of the ginna. Each one contains an altar on which the wooden figures are found, leaning against the wall of the
shrine. Small bowls, miniature ladders, iron hooks and bracelets, and L-shaped wooden domolo staffs are also placed in binu shrines
(Dieterlen, 1941: 220; Ganay, 1942: 13—14). The sculptures are often mentioned in the myths describing the ancestor's initial contact with his
clan, in which he provides a sculpture along with other objects as tokens of his alliance with his descendants (Ganay, 1941: 114, 123). The
sculptures on binu shrines take a variety of forms and sizes. Although in some cases they appear to be simple cylinders, in others they are
less abstract and have more varied and descriptive human and animal imagery (Ganay, 1942: 13-14; Gnaule and Dieterlen, 1986: 381-85,
484-85). The binu sculptures are said to represent either the binu himself or his first priest (Dieterlen, 1941: 220), but it has also been
suggested that they represent various aspects of Nommo, who is considered the ultimate source of the binu's spiritual force (Griaule and
Dieterlen, 1986: 381).
In addition to altars dedicated to the ancestors, some Dogon figures are placed on altars made to augment and strengthen a living individual's
personal force, or nyama. One such altar is the kutogolo, which is dedicated to a person's own head, ku, the seat of his or her thought and will.
The kutogolo consists of a ball of earth mixed with seeds into which iron hooks, clay pots, and occasional small wooden figures are stuck
(Dieterlen, 1941: 77-79, pi. XIc). The bala is an altar made for a left-handed person, who is believed to have special powers in his or her left
hand. These altars, too, are made of balls of earth into which small wooden figures, some of them with raised arms, are stuck along with iron
hooks and bracelets (Dieterlen, 1941: 83-84, pi. Xld; N'Diaye, 1972: n. 11). Both kutogolo and bala altars are kept in the niches in the facade
ofaginna, or in the corner of a storeroom. Some Dogon blacksmiths and hunters also have individual altars, which often include figurative
sculpture (Paris, Musee Guimet, 1959: 116; Dieterlen, 1965: 15).
Dogon rain-making altars, called andugo, have also been found with figure sculptures. The andugo are the focus of sacrifices to Nommo, who
as Master of Water is manifested in every body of water on earth, including the rain falling from the sky. These altars can be located on a
rooftop terrace, in a courtyard, on the outskirts of a village, or in a separate sanctuary; some are portable and can be carried to fields in
particular need of rain. The altars consist of a pile of ancient stone tools—"thunderstones" believed to have fallen from the sky—into which
iron hooks and wooden figures may be inserted. These figures are said to represent Nommo. Judging from examples in the few published
photographs and descriptions, they vary in size, style, and iconography; in one altar an androgynous seated figure and a figure covering his
face with his hands, as well as several others, were noted (Dieterlen and Ganay, 1942: 30-40, pi. III).
Source: Art of the Dogon, by Kate Ezra
A fantastic resource on the Dogon