AN INCLUSIVE MOVEMENT THROUGH SPACE
by Jessica Hurd
AN INCLUSIVE MOVEMENT THROUGH SPACE
by Jessica Hurd
“It is like a voyage,” explained Dogon artist Amahigueré Dolo (b. 1955) as we stood before a large-scale, multifigure installation in his sandy, studio courtyard in Ségou, Mali. The title of Dolo’s installation in the Dogon toro speech variety, Adouron Bew, translates to Components of the World.(1) It is a fitting name for a dynamic crowd of 86 zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, all exhibiting distinct forms, gestures, and personalities. The scene is intended to evoke the migration of all “components of the world” (humans, ancestors, animals, insects, bush spirits, etc.) to Earth to insure the continuation of life. It’s movement that creates.... It’s the thing that will never cease,” states Dolo.
The figures’ complex interweave of bodily poses in Components of the World exposes us to the delicate web of relationships that exist between members of the visible and less visible realms; relationships that, in Dogon society, must be continually mediated through the efforts of ritual specialists. The postures also reflect Dolo’s creative technique. In his wood sculpture, he allows the natural twists and turns of the branches he collects to guide his adze and spark his imagination. “Make it as it is,” Dolo says. “It is in that way that the tree guards its force.” His figures draw from dreams, the stories of his maternal grandmother, his urban and rural life experiences, and his personal reflections on the upward-reaching, rooted “life force” of trees.
Components of the World represents Dolo’s second foray into the interactive, space-based realm of installation art. It was also the first time the artist “planted” his sculptures in a bed of Mali’s signature red soil, an act that transports viewer to the red rock Bandiagara cliffs, sandstone plateau, and Séno-Gondo plain, a culture region commonly known as Dogon Country. This is the place where Dolo spent his childhood and which he continues to visit in body and in mind. It is also a place where “planting” precious objects in the spiritually animated, cultivable earth is an important aesthetic, religious, and territorial practice. Agricultural concepts surrounding the cycle of life and death and the value of “taking root” are incorporated into the artist’s creative strategy:
One must be grounded in order to stand, to grow, to live. At death, one is often buried in the earth. If there is not death, there is not life…. The earth is a part of the sculpture. It is obligatory. It’s the base. Even in the interior of a gallery, one needs to put down sand and plant this installation in it. It’s like planting.
Dogon and pre-Dogon objects planted in the soil in the Bandiagara region include figural sculptures guarding gardens;(2) the famous Nongom-style sculptures,(3) which were buried up to their necks and surrounded by animal skulls in the village of Yaye; (4) relics from the tombs of mytho-historical Mande ancestors (lebe);(5) and rocks sent to earth in strikes of lightning.(6) There is also a pre-20th-century practice of burying the bodies of sacrificed human victims into the earth with iron hooks (gobo)(7) lodged in their skulls to attract rain and positive forces from the celestial realm (pegu).(8) In the Menil Collection, these iron hooks are also seen on dress masks(9) and the bodies of altar figures.(10)
It is common for these buried objects to be coated in accumulative layers of clay and sacrificial substances, eventually forming conical earth shrines. Scholars including Laurence Douny and Jean-Christophe Huet have revealed diverse roles of Dogon earth shrines: indexing safe spaces in the landscape, marking owned territories, infusing the soil with the ancestors’ generative forces, and serving as points of access between the visible and less visible realms.(11) Blood and millet gruel sacrifices(12) offered at the shrines help to revive the invisible shield that separates humans from harmful spirits, enemies, or diseases.
Dolo’s interest in site-specific Dogon “installations” comes through in The Verticalities (Les Verticalités), a sculpture made in collaboration with French sculptor Alain Kirili in 2007.(13) In this work, a depicted clay shrine opens its mouth to receive the ritual specialist’s sacrificial offerings (in the center of the illustration). Kirili’s insertion of a twisted, metal rod at the top of the shrine alludes to the gobo. It also symbolizes the vertical lines of communication between the celestial deity Ama and the Dogon that are opened through ritual activity as well as the vertically oriented forms of millet stalks, the most valued Dogon crop. In another work by Dolo, titled Narien II (Resurrection), 1999–2000,(14) an earth shrine (female deity Earth, buried contact materials of ancestors) bends forlornly under the weight of its worries for its children.
Expressly vertical forms in Components of the World also mimic the celestial reach of trees and millet stalks. Certain figures raise one or both arms toward the sky in a pose that is seen in many Dogon sculptures in international museums.(15) According to Dolo, ritual specialists employ this gesture to offer “benedictions for water, for health, and for prosperity.” Other figures raise an extra arm or leg to the sky. For Dolo, additional limbs reveal the presence of one’s “invisible double,” a shadow of oneself that provides balance (sanity) and perspective to each individual.
Among single body parts reaching toward the sky, a raised foot communicates the clairvoyance of the pale fox and other bush animals whose tracks are read by Dogon diviners.(16) The elongated beard of a large ancestor head (a symbol of accumulated knowledge) descends toward the floor, like the waterfalls in/near Sanga Gogoli, the artist’s home village. A raised hand expresses the artist’s appreciation for manual labor. A single horse head evokes the protective animal (tana) of the artist’s village.(17) Dolo's aesthetic interest in verticality, as revealed through these examples, can be linked to his name, Amahigueré, which translates to “He whom God allows to stand upright.” Dogon infants are given this name only if none of their siblings have lived long enough to stand. The name is intended to push to the child upward toward survival.
Both Components of the World and the artist’s first untitled installation of 2005 concentrate on the theme of migration. Dolo’s first installation was exhibited at the Fondation Jean-Paul Blachère in Apt, France. It presented eight ceramic vessels inching forward on a serpentine iron platform. The platform represents serpent’s, lebe’s, fertilizing path in Dogon mythology. In Sanga, Lebe is recognized as the guide of the four legendary Dogon families on their journey from their Mande region origins to the Bandiagara escarpment. For Dolo, the serpentine path is also the correct path, since it “moves around spirit-inhabited spaces.”
Components of the World focuses on an earlier migration, one that includes all beings of the natural world. Interestingly, Components of the World’s installation space is not limited to Dogon members of the visible and less visible world. One also finds references to winged angels, talking snakes, and other mysterious creatures that populate the ancient Hebrew Book of Genesis. By presenting these shared stories, Dolo challenges the otherness of Dogon religious thought. He also reminds the international community that all God’s creatures, human or otherwise, were sent to Earth with divine intention. Consequently, they must all be respected:
Nothing is useless. If the things are there, they have a purpose. The Dogon have benedictions for everything that exists. Everything is guided by the intentions of God. This installation depicts the equilibrium in the Dogon system of life. It reveals their [the Dogon] way of seeing.
From an aerial perspective, the bodies in Components of the World form the rough shape of a vessel with a winged angel at the bow. “All that is natural in the world is guided by angels,” explains Dolo.(18) “Even with the stuff of Christians, the stuff of Jesus’ sacrifice and the boat [Noah’s Ark], one says that they are similar. One says that the cosmic system of the Dogon is very close to the Old Testament.” After all, he argues, we were all selected to board a vessel (ark in ancient Hebrew accounts, celestial granary in Sanga-based genesis accounts). Moreover, we all arrived in pairs at a newly redeemed land. In Sanga-based oral histories, four pairs of humans (produced by nomo spirits), multiple pairs of animals, and the seeds of nurturing plants and trees were all escorted to Earth on the back of a rainbow/serpent. In Dogon oral and visual art, couples symbolize alliances, harmony, and the continuation of life.
Sacrifice is another theme that Dolo paints as universal. In Dogon oral histories, the primordial spirit Nomo’s body is torn into pieces by Ama to cleanse the world of Ogo’s incestuous offenses against his mother, the Earth. The artist compares this legend to the Great Flood in ancient Hebrew texts, which cleansed the Earth of past wrongs.
Dolo’s installation Components of the World should not be viewed as an illustration of myth. Instead, the artist uses myth and shared cultural histories as tools to express the less visible and less visible components at play in all civilizations. From his perspective, not respecting the spaces and rights to existence of all God’s creatures can lead to disaster in any region of the world.