230536 - Old African Dogon Mali


Mali: Rare and old Tribal used African Dogon Figure.
Hand carved from a single piece of wood.
Height: 49 cm.

This Dogon statue was collected in 1954 and ended up in my private collection in 1986.

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.

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.