This energetically-carved piece is a granary door made by the Dogon group, Mali. The design is somewhat unorthodox, as they are usually planed with a series of panels – separated by relief ridges – all decorated with a series of geometrically reduced figures, usually in the Tellem pose (arms upraised, perhaps as an appeal for rain). This piece is therefore somewhat unusual, comprising a three-plank door with a male figure on the left side (furthest from the hinge) and a female figure on the right. They are separated by a panel decorated solely with relief eminences arranged in vertical bands. The hinge constitutes a double-peg arrangement at the door’s turning axis. The planks are held together by transverse smaller planks dorsally, and a further thin board at the very top of the front aspect. The figures are carved in low relief, with very angular and powerful torsos and limbs, differentiated by the presence/absence of highly pointed breasts. It would have been used to close off the entrance to a ceramic/stone granary. It would have been locked with an anthropomorphic lock which would have been secured on the left of the piece where two holes can still be seen. The designs were not merely ornamental – they would have played a protective function, and warded off ill fortune while bestowing it upon anyone or anything that tried to steal from the granary. It has a light patina from usage.
The Dogon people of the Bandiagara escarpment, Mali, have been described as the most studied and least understood tribal group in Africa. Their history, technology, cultural wealth, art and even oral legends are among the most involved in Africa, not least because the polity is in fact essentially artificial, comprising various sub-units that were grouped together on the basis of propinquity under the colonial administration. The Dogon live on the Bandiagara escarpment, Mali, a 150-mile-long eminence that supports a population of between 250,000 and 450,000. They have been described as the most studied and least understood tribal group in Africa. They moved to this area in the 15th century, escaping the Mande kingdom and slavery at the hands of Islamic groups, and displaced a number of tribes (including the Tellem and Niongom) that were living on the escarpment at the time. They are agriculturists (millet, barley, onions and various animals), patrilineal, polygamous and have a society arranged around specialist trades. They are excessively prolific in terms of artistic production, not least because they have mastered all the main materials that are used in traditional African art; figures in stone, iron, bronze/copper and of course wood are all known, in addition to cave/rock painting and adaptation of more modern materials. Furthermore, their social structures are extremely complex (and variable – see below) and are socially signalled through numerous material signalling systems. Their profound resistance to Islam – which once sought to enslave them – is striking in light of their comparative proximity, and can be seen in their defiantly figurative artworks which are of course banned under Islamic law.
Their diversity has posed certain challenges to western art historians. There are around seventy-eight different mask forms still in production (in addition to numerous extinct variants), which are used in ceremonies for circumcision, initiation, funeral rites (damas), cultic procedures (the Dogon have numerous cults that pertain to twins, as well as spirits including mono, sigui, Lebe [crocodile], binou and amma) and other seminal events. They also produce numerous sculptural forms, of males, females, hermaphrodites, nommos (ancestral spirits), animals and unidentifiable individuals that have maternity, apotropaic and ancestor functions. Most sculptures are not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly kept by the spiritual leader (Hogon) away from the public eye, within the houses of families, or in sanctuaries. They are also renowned for their skilful production of jewellery and other metal objects. Organic-looking rock paintings are carried out on behalf of boys undergoing the circumcision process. Even secular items are endowed with iconographic designs that bestow benedictions upon the user or owner; notable examples include headrests, granary doors/locks, house-posts and troughs.
Granaries were of primary importance to the Dogon. This piece protected the entrance to a granary that would have contained the livelihood of an entire family or small social group. As a secular item it is also, perhaps, a more illuminating look at African life than more heavily religious and ritual objects. It is a striking and attractive piece of secular African design, and a credit to any collection.