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Dr, Herbert M. Cole, professor emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara : 2013 review of Dogon Images & Traditions


The Dutch photographer, Huib Blom, has illustrated and written a splendid large book: Dogon: Images and Traditions, which surveys in considerable depth the celebrated landscapes, architectures, and arts of the Dogon peoples, who themselves appear in dozens of the hundreds of superb black and white photographs. The plurals in the previous sentence are deliberate, for Blom has carefully avoided essentializing Dogon culture as a single fixed entity, for example, by falling into the “Griaule trap” which smoothly, seductively codified Dogon thought and cosmology in his Conversations with Ogotemmeli. (Dieu d'Eau, entretiens avec Ogotemméli, 1948). Notably, Blom omits this book in his bibliography. Rather, we are presented, in photographs and text, with some of the nearly endless complexities of things and activities Dogon, whether wall paintings, caves, migrations, family names, art styles, sacrifices, masks, roof-scapes, rituals, people, buildings, shrines, or spectacular landscapes. Moreover, Blom’s fresh exploring eye as a sensitive photographer -- on some 20 trips to Mali over some 20 years -- informs nearly every page of the book, which is thankfully cliché-free in dealing with a culture, or better, a related congeries of cultures, that have fascinated professionals and amateurs for many decades. The book provides ample contextual explications of Dogon art, ritual, ceremony, and everyday life in vivid pictures and well written texts.

Not surprisingly, the great impact and strength of the book are its photographs; they are sharp, well composed, original, unexpected, edifying and often eloquent, which is to say poetic and poignant without being sentimental or romantic. Many pictures are redolent with history, in the textures and surfaces of buildings, rock outcroppings, and cave contents. It is not uncommon for many to envisage Dogon and other African cultures – so different from those of Europe or America -- as timeless and frozen, but Blom avoids that trap too, for example by showing a rock drawing of a bicycle along with many other earlier drawings and paintings on rock surfaces that I for one have never seen before. We spot a modern suitcase long with traditional pottery. He explores remote parts of Dogon country difficult of access, and also shows varied views of the dominant geographical feature of this dramatic landscape, the Bandiagara escarpment. Some may complain that the photographs are exclusively black and white, but I find that medium strong, and appropriate to Blom’s comprehensive view of Dogon life and topography, as it preserves some of the mystique that many of us feel when confronted with the subjects he records. And frankly, some of his fine pictures do have a romantic tinge, such as the final double-page spread of a lone person standing in a spectacular sculptural complex of bedrock, eroded by nature and the hands of men and probably women, or another double-page image of a manifestly old, smoothly rounded building that looks very much like a gigantic ancient ceramic sculpture (pages 130 &131).

The book’s text (in English and French), is informative and well researched; it is divided into five chapters that begin an excellent map. The first outlines pre-Dogon cultures, Toloy and Tellem, with cliff-side caves, their interiors and artifacts, pointing out clearly the heterogeneity of Dogon migrations of disparate populations from different regions, plus varied ceramic wares, woodcarving, architecture, and lifeways. The second chapter – A Wide Territory -- surveys regional landscapes and art styles in the three major zones: cliff top villages, those on the Seno plain below the escarpment, and others that appear to climb the cliff, linking some specific sculptural styles, according to the Leloup canon, to specific named regions. Here we are introduced to further differences among areas and subgroups, to the relationships among Dogon, Djenne and Djenneke with similar forms and styles. Blom does not skirt the historical complexities of the greater region and he is careful to cite his sources. There are seventeen separate texts for as many regions, and varied examples of buildings and sculptures for many of them, myths and stories of migration and conflict, of tribes, languages, and families. This is the longest chapter, and contains well thought out information on many subjects and historical relationships. The complexity of Dogon history is in relationships among varied Dogon communities themselves, as well as with Mossi, Samo, Songhay, Bamana, and Fulani peoples over the centuries.

Chapter three, on architecture and religion, is also rich as it discusses specialist personnel (priests and smiths), building types, cults, altars, and shrines – and as in all parts of the book -- illuminated by fine photographs. Chapter four – funerary rites – is fairly short, like the first chapter. The final chapter, on masks and masquerades, gives a valuable overview without being at all exhaustive even as major mask types are enumerated and illustrated both in studio shots and in field photographs. Here and earlier there are discussions of the sixty-year funerary ceremony and its focus on the Great Mask, which is not danced, as well as the origin of masking. There are sixteen short essays on varied aspects of masking, costume, and masks themselves. After a short but appropriate conclusion – about fairly recent changes -- the book ends with a useful glossary and a good bibliography.

The art works illustrated are as well chosen as the photographs, and I am again struck, as I have been over the years, with the uncanny parallels between the shapes and textured surfaces of Dogon sculptures and those of both buildings and the landscape itself, including the trees – relationships stated repeatedly in the photographs. The book’s design also features several fine facing pages: a granary door showing crocodiles, in both a studio shot and in context, and other similarly paired pictures: clay figurines, a figurated ritual vessel, a smith’s bellows, and several masks. Another pair juxtaposes a fine sculpture of a standing female against a black background opposite a page showing an actual standing woman facing the same direction but at some distance across a roof-scape, silhouetted against a light sky. The text on funerary rites is framed by pictures of a cloth-enshrouded corpse being pulled up to its cliff-side cave. Throughout, the close-ups and distant shots are equally telling, and the photographs also seem to reveal the weather, the dust, and the time of day, deep shadows and searing sunlight. The pictures of people show them as lively, interesting, and intelligent.

There are many surprises and treats here, verbal and visual insights. The book is to be savored, as the texts speak to and deepen the photographs, which are to be studied for detailed information that careful looking rewards. Clearly this book is a labor of love, its own strong artistry echoing the varied aesthetics of Dogon arts and architectures in their magnificent environments.