L. Komaga Face Mask. C. Elders & Dancers R. Circumcision Cave, symbol
19th-20th c African (West) Dogon Sculpture
(active 13th c - present)
L. c. 1850-1950 C. 1999 R. c. 1850-1950
Mali. Western Sudan.
L. New York. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Masks hanging on the walls of ethnological exhibitions or Fine Arts museums speak in the language of form, but they only give us a small hint of the power that they embody. Masked dances, rituals, songs and sacrifices were all important in keeping the village in touch with the world of the gods and the ancestors. Masks linked the physical world with the spiritual world into a seamless whole. The imaginative forms used by the African mask makers were the result of the need to give form to the formless, to make the invisible visible.
On the right we see a Kanaga mask created by the Dogon people as it looks in a museum setting. As we look at the mask on the museum wall we are struck by its abstract beauty, and as we read a tag explaining its purpose, we intellectually catalogue its meaning. However, that experience cannot compare to seeing the mask danced in a village ceremony like the one shown in the center. Here the dancers, who have become the spirits embodied in the masks, descend into the central meeting place of the village where they are welcomed by musicians and the village elders. The entire community gathers around the dancing space, and through the ceremony, are united with the ancestors that went before.
The religion they practice is known as ANIMISM which has been defined as the "belief that all things in the world have consciousness and personality. These may include the spirits of the dead, leading to ancestor worship." The spirits must be propitiated through ceremonies and rituals; they can be asked to help or outwitted when they are malevolent. The Kanaga mask is a powerful but abstract evocation of the links between the upper and lower worlds, the spirit world and the world of physical reality, which are symbolized by the cross bars, with the vertical member serving as the link between the two worlds. It thus symbolizes creation.
Each clan identifies with one of the masks, and its representatives are the dancers for that mask. The depictions on the masks serve as symbols of the clan and are used in coming-of-age ceremonies in which young boys become men. The symbols on the right are painted on a rock in the cave where the ceremony takes place, a circumcision ceremony which is the culmination of a period in which 10 and 11 year old boys are taken away from the village and indoctrinated with the secrets of the group.
According to a traditional Dogon story, children are born sexless, and circumcision is necessary for them to become fully functioning men and women. In male circumcision the foreskin, which is considered the female part, is cut away, while in female circumcision the clitoris, which is considered to be the male part, is excised. The old belief may be the basis of the female circumcision that still takes place in many traditional African societies and which is so shocking to westerners. As we visited a cave where the circumcisions took place I asked our highly westernized Bamana guide whether he had had his son circumcised. He said yes, that boys were sent from the city back to the parent's home village for the ceremony. When I asked if his daughter had been circumcised, he replied that he had not wanted to have it done, but that his mother had taken the girl and had her circumcised, arguing that she would not get a good husband if she were not.
DOGON | L. Komaga Face Mask. C. Elders & Dancers R. Circumcision Cave, symbol. | c. 1850-1950 | West African | Dogon