Unique Dogon Culture Survives in West Africa

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The Dogon priest finished his chant as the last light of the day lingered in the western sky and then disappeared. The priest returned to his village. Nightfall invited the fox to visit the sacred Dogon markings.

At dawn the following day, sunlight traced the shadows of the fox path across the sand drawing. Indeed, the fox had visited in the night during our trip and with its tracings had foretold the future of the village of Yougou Piri. With these fortuitous markings, the fox had symbolically acted out the ritual of an oracle, a Dogon tradition that keeps life in balance for yet another year.

Dogon Mask Dance

Our expedition had also come to witness the dances of the Dogon masks, known throughout the world by anthropologists and art curators. Dogon masks rank among the most respected within the world of tribal art collections and have influenced such Western 20th-century artists as Picasso and Braque, even the Cubist movement.

As a visual story teller and photographer, I was most interested in documenting the visually powerful sirige mask (see photograph). The mask binds the Dogon people to the celestial world of heaven (where the afterworld exists) and Earth, which provides food, shelter and life. The dancers of the sirige mask are considered the most skilled. They use their teeth to balance the 20-foot (6-meter) high mask, which is carved from the limb of a single tree. Dancers swing the mask in sweeping motions to represent the arc of the sun.

The mask's design, a straight line, serves to connect the worlds of the sun and Earth through the conduit of the dancer and his body. Like all Dogon masks, the sirige belongs to the afterworld, the realm of where life and death meet.

The Dogon perform with their dancing masks to honor the passing of a respected elder. This dama dance ceremony will often last for three days and involve dozens of dancers representing figures from the animal world, male and female powers, and the afterworld. Once the dama dance has been performed, the aged bones of the elder are placed high in the windswept cliffs of the sacred caves for the dead, where the red mountains meet the sky in the little known land of the Dogon in southern Mali.

The skulls of the Dogon elders watch over a people barely hidden from a modern world just beginning to comprehend that Africa is where human time began.

More Stories in This Series:
In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On
Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Explorer Wade Davis on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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