The beauty of Dogon earthen architecture, which is set against the steep cliffs of Mali’s Bandiagara escarpment, forms a dramatic backdrop for daily and ritual life. Centuries ago the setting for Dogon villages provided strategic advantages. Located high above the plains, traditional Dogon villages were well positioned in case of attack, as advancing enemies could be seen from a distance. Steep gorges and loose rock made it hard to get to the villages at the top of the plateau. Caves within the cliffs provided additional shelter.
Family homes are typically composed of a cluster of earthen, thatched-roof dwellings. Men and women keep separate granaries, which are small storage buildings grouped in clusters. Generally, a woman’s granary is where she keeps jewelry and other personal belongings, while a man’s granary stores the family’s millet and sorghum. Other buildings might include family homes, a ginna (a large house for the head of an extended family), or a special women’s house. The Togu Na, a meeting place for male elders, is an open structure with an extremely low roof. The low roof is said to serve a practical function, as no one can easily jump to his feet to fight should conversation turn to argument.
Masquerades continue to be a dramatic feature of Dogon cultural and artistic expression. They are performed for funeral rituals that lead the soul of the deceased to the world of the ancestors and for celebrations that mark the end of mourning. One important festival involving masks takes place every 60 years. Masquerades are also a popular form of entertainment for the increasing numbers of tourists who visit the Dogon region each year.
In Dogon masquerades, the great plank masks called sirige seemingly reach for the heavens, their tall superstructures bridging earth and sky. The crossbar elements of kanaga masks may reflect the opposing, yet connected, domains of sky and earth. In performance, the dancers swing the mask in a figure 8, touching the tip of the mask to the earth in the four cardinal directions.
More than 70 different styles of Dogon masks represent animal, human, and abstract characters. The “Fulbe Woman,” for example, depicted by a special hairstyle, represents a woman from a neighboring group to suggest Dogon ideas about social interaction.
In these images, taken by former Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon, we see the carving of a kanaga mask and how mask-making skills are learned through apprenticeship, usually passed down from father to son.
This carving likely depicts a dog. According to oral history, when the Dogon first came to the Bandiagara cliffs, they found the Tellem peoples, who hid the locations of water holes and wells from the Dogon. When a dog came into camp with wet paws, the Dogon were able to find the water, defeat the Tellem, and inhabit the cliffs, where they have remained ever since.
This figure has many faces looking in all directions, as a family or a community might. It may refer to the Dogon myth of the Nommo, the first beings who descended to the earth from their celestial domain.
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