This intriguing object is a granary door lock made by the Dogon group, Mali. It is a complex design that has at least 3,000 years’ of history in Northern Africa, notably Egypt. The body of the lock is a thick columnar bar, with a flat apex bearing a slim neck and ornate head and – unusually – a pair of legs/feet at the base. The lock arrangement is the transverse bar with one slim and one block-shaped end, which can be slid across to secure the door. The head is geometrically reductivist, with a domed apex/coiffure, a square jaw and incised cheeks beneath angular brows. This object would have been mounted on an anthropomorphically-themed door, which would have covered the aperture to a large granary. 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 patina from usage.
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 would have secured the door to a granary that contained the livelihood of an entire family or small social group. It is a striking and attractive piece of secular African design, and a credit to any collection.