EXPLORING THE DOGON
by CHERYL KORALIK
In August 2001, I decided it was time to explore Mali and continue my quest in search of the sacred masques. So my ten-year-old daughter Aissata and I set off on a new adventure.
Landlocked in West Africa, Mali is bordered by seven countries, with most of its territory on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert. Our first stop was its capital, Bamako, an easy, yet richly cultured town with the romantic lure of the Niger River flowing through it. As our dusty 4×4 drove out of Bamako, the entrancing Malinké voice of Oumou Sangaré played on our cassette player, serenading the village streets lined with the decaying remains of French colonial architecture, and blurred visions of history. Still, the West African culture sang through, as we passed the gentle Malians moving peacefully along their way… slow and soulful.
The destination of our mission to photograph the masques was the Dogon region, located in central Mali. At first sight, one is awe-struck by the geographical drama of the escarpment. The Bandiagara cliffs are intimidating, yet stunning, filled with endless historical culture.
One cannot feel closer to animism than when in the Dogon. It is as if the world had stood still for centuries. Life in its most primitive form: water, food, sleep, and the spirit world - the quintessence of simplicity.
In the Dogon, if you need water, you must find it. Every night my daughter and I would take a shower together, sharing a bucket of water that one of the village women had carried on her head from the source, barefoot, up the rocky cliff path.
We were honoured to be welcomed and lodged as guests chezle chef de village. Mosquito nets had been set up on the roof of his hut and we slept under the stars. It was magical, as in the African storybooks I would read to Aissata when she was younger. But now, we were actually living our own African story.
The ladder we used to climb to the roof was in the form of a 'Y', carved by hand from one piece of wood from a tree in the village. It is known as a Dogon ladder. I have one in my house, leaning against the wall in my salon as decor. I have seen such ladders in flea markets in New York and around the world; they are sold as objets d'art at Sotheby's and Christies. So when they led us to the Dogon ladder for our nightly assent to our chambre, I chuckled to myself, realizing that what they created and used, a simple functional object, is considered an expensive work of art in the Western world. I jokingly admitted to them that I had one of these ladders in my home, but I didn't know that people actually used them. We had a good laugh at our cultural differences, and every night, Aissata and I would side-step our way up our Dogon ladder to sleep beneath the immense star filled African skies. And in the morning, we side-stepped down our Dogon ladder for our morning coffee and bread.
Photographing in the Dogon can be quite the task, and quite a balancing act. Because the villages are built within the Bandiagara cliffs, every step one takes is either up or down. A simple movement in any direction can throw one's shot off completely. That said, I actually thought I could outsmart this ancient civilization by maneuvering sideways - off the path, but was immediately made aware of fetishes planted everywhere that were not to be disturbed. So, with every step I took, in any direction, not wanting to disrespect any supernatural powers, I first asked permission from our guide, who then asked the villagers, and then translated back to me.
Indeed, I neededa great deal of patience photographing in the Dogon. When walking with the guide, he would customarily stop upon meeting every villager along the path, and the salutations would begin: "Good morning. How are you? And how is your wife? And the family? Your grandmother? Your grandfather? Your nieces? And the nephews? And how about the chickens? And of course, the goats?" Then, somehow, we would continue on our way,but soon enough we would come upon another villager and the salutations would begin again: "Good morning. How are you? And your wife? And the family? Your grandmother? Your grandfather? Your nieces? The nephews? The chickens? And of course, the goats?" And this would continue - all day.
Although these continual interruptions of hidden fetishes and lengthy salutations stole me from my mission to document the Dogon and all of the wonder that surrounded me. Enjoying the beauty of this culture, being concern expressed for every person (and every person's animals), with reverence for all, was intriguing, and lovely. It also gave me a moment to marvel that I was actually photographing the lives of these people in this extraordinary land.
Finally, the day arrived. The chief of the village had arranged for all of the masques to gather on my behalf. I will never forget my first vision of the masques slowly descending the cliffs in single file, the beat of the djembe (African drum) echoing off the harsh rocky terrain. It was surreal and mystical. My heart raced… in reverence and awe.
The most well known and symbolic masque of the Dogon is the Kanaga. When the Kanaga dances, it appears as a soaring bird, expressing the creation of the world with its central axis that binds the sky to the earth.
One of my favourite of all the Dogon masques is the Masque de Feuilles, which looks like a walking tree. I came to call it the "Tree Masque". In spite of its simplicity, it has a purpose: camouflage, assuring protection for the village. As we sat under the nearest baobab (a tree indigenous to Mali) to escape the heat, my guide and the chief of the village conversed in the local dialect. My curiosity about this masque grew while my hand scribbled notes translated from French to English mixed with Bambara (the common language of Mali): “Le Masque de Feuilles surveys the village so the people from the other villages will not come to upset them.”
It was not the time of year that this masque normally ventures out, but with a little determination, and persuasion on my part, the chief assured me that if I made the offering of an ox, he could arrange something. The Dogon had presented me with many curiosities, but this proposition raised another question: commerce in the spirit world? In the end, he got his ox, and I got my tree. So the ‘offering’ worked and we were all happy. The chief of the village, the spirit world and me.
Amiina. ("amen" in Bambara.)