Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dancing with the Dogon

Seeing the name of my next show at Jack Fischer Gallery on the announcement postcard, more than a few people asked Jack:
"So, who's Dogon Kayak?"

I hadn't sufficiently considered that many people are unfamiliar with the Dogon people of Central Mali in West Africa. Me, I'd fallen in love with them back in 1965 when I was working in Omaha for furniture designer Cedric Hartman. Cedric introduced me to much of what formed my aesthetic, including a book by Bernard Rudovsky entitled Architecture Without Architects (still in print!). As I studied the photographs of Dogon cities built on the side of the Bandagara escarpment, my thoughts centered on how organic they appeared, how like the cells in honeycomb, or scales on a snake's skin. I really wanted to see them first-hand, for myself. But life got in the way; decades flew by and I never got there.

Then one night in 2005 Vivienne and I were dining with friends in Paris, Sophie-Anne and Jean-Philippe. Sophie-Anne had been raised in Senegal and visited West Africa at least once each year in part because she wanted their kids to be acquainted with the amazing place that had been her homeWhy don't we go with them some time? she asked. The only place in Africa I really want to visit, I answered, is a place hardly anyone ever goes: le pays Dogon. Funny, she said, that's exactly where we're going over New Year's. Want to join us?

Though short, that visit has inspired a lot of my work since then, including five recent polychrome wood sculptures: I call them Bandiagara, and they are based in part upon our climb up the face of the escarpment, but even more so on Dogon altars, dripping with millet porridge.

The paintings don't in any way mimic the art of the Dogon; I would feel uncomfortable doing such a thing. They are more my feelings about the place: the sand, dirt, dry heat, poverty, and above all the sense of being there. Actually, I hadn't even meant to mention the influence of the trip on my imagery, but another friend, who visits Africa often, took a look and said: Phew, these are so African! I agreed, though I'd be at pain to defend that statement.

So I named this group after the Dogon, whose architecture I respect and admire, and would love to revisit some day. And this week I brought out these photos from our trip, to remind me of what another world that had all seemed, and how lucky we were to have visited there. I've placed them along with a description of our trip, below:

Mali, New Year's Eve, 2005   I knew I could make it to the rooftop in the dark; I wasn’t so sure about my wife. We were tipsy on homemade beer and the Dogon ladder was really nothing more than a notched tree trunk. Once accomplished, however, Vivienne fell asleep immediately. Still, I lay awake, drunkenly searching the African sky for Canis Major, the constellation Dogon claim as their ancestral home; more precisely, two suns, one revolving around the other. Purportedly, Dogon have claimed it for centuries, though it wasn’t until 1970 the first photos of the double star were made. It’s invisible to the naked eye; so how did they know that?

A week earlier, on the day after Christmas, Vivienne and I had left a freezing Paris to board a small plane for Mopti, Mali, where we were dumped, tardy, onto a blistering tarmac, temperature over 100 degrees. We were shepherded into a 4x4, then bounced across a landscape of red dust and rocks to the ancient city of Djenné, where our plan was to rendezvous with friends. Sophie and Jean-Philippe, Alex and Arnaud, plus their five kids, had been camping in Burkina Faso and had assured us there’d be no problem in finding each other in the teeming African marketplace surrounding the mosque. Having little idea of our itinerary and no other contacts in Africa, we traveled on faith. If we missed them, we were in deep trouble.

Djenné, the oldest city in Sub-Saharan Africa, was once an important trading center.  Today it’s known primarily for its mud mosque (a Unesco World Heritage site) and its popular Monday market. Exiting the 4x4, we were caught up in chaos: to our left, men butchered a goat; to our right, turbaned ladies lined up dried onion balls on a mat of neon-striped plastic; next to them, teenagers sold mystery spices in clay pots. Goats bleated, chickens ran between our legs, a thousand people in all variety of African garb threatened to separate us.

But in her European clothing, we easily spied Sophie-Anne, walking towards us, arms outstretched, face beaming: “Are we far?” she cried out, in her unique form of English. “Are we far?”

Minutes later we stood on the roof of a nearby shop, looking across a patchwork of market stalls at the mosque. Its red towers––topped with ostrich eggs––appeared to rise above the smoke, float, then evanesce into the sunset. And we had to agree: we were very far, indeed.
I’d wanted to visit le pays Dogon for forty years. To my eyes, their architecture resembled wasp nests or barnacles: hundreds of nearly identical mud buildings blending into the cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment.  These same cliffs provided protection when Moslem invaders swept across Africa in the 1300’s and enabled the Dogon to remain animist––until recently. Today many Dogon practice a unique form of Islam, one day a week, in trade for Saudi-financed Islamic schools. Dogon art––masks, sculpture, jewelry, music––have long been valued worldwide, but other than the French and Germans, few outsiders visit. 

Instead of heading directly into Dogon country, however, our friends had arranged for us to travel north to Kona and board a pinasse (fishing boat) and cruise down the Niger River for two lazy days. The boat was a wooden spear, ten times longer than wide, with a roof of woven rushes. Jean-Philippe (an illustrator) took position on the bow to draw the passing countryside––flat, with few trees, here and there small villages inhabited by Peul and Bozo tribes people. Hours moved slowly but pleasantly as we took turns climbing onto the roof to sun, often tipping the boat to near-capsize. We were warned not to put our hands in the water, not even a toe; there are organisms in the Niger you don’t even want to think about.

Early the first morning, a cloud of dust appeared in the distance and we heard a pounding of hooves––a Peul cattle drive. Barefooted men drove hump-backed cows into the river, swam past and disappeared into the heat-shimmering distance.
At noon we pulled ashore and walked into a nearby town, Kodaga. Raggedy children encircled us, demanding, “Bon-bons? Bics? Bidons?” (Sweets, pens, mineral water bottles.) Our Dogon guide, Immanuel, warned us, “Don’t give them a thing! It’ll turn them into beggars.” We found that difficult, as the kids had so little,  were so cute, and we doubted an empty plastic bottle would cause instant and complete cultural decay. By the time we emerged from visiting the town mosque, scores of adults had joined the children. They grabbed our hands and sung and danced with us back to the river––and as our boat pulled into the current, we waved back, feeling somehow as if we were leaving family.

Friendliness and friendship are very important to Malians, Immanuel explained, and he launched into an oft-repeated story: “Once two boys, a Bozo and a Dogon, suckled at the same teat, making them near-brothers. But during a famine, the Dogon cut off a piece of his flesh to feed the Bozo and that made them true brothers. So Bozo and Dogon cannot marry. In fact, a Dogon male can touch the breasts of a Bozo woman, a Bozo woman can touch a Dogons’ penis, and nothing happens (no erection, that is) because it wouldn’t be right.”

At sunset we chose a desolate place to camp––in every direction, emptiness. But as we pitched our tents, crowds appeared from out of the horizon, their jewelry identifying them as Peul. The children hounded us, mimicking our words and movements, making fun of my blue eyes. I let them push the button on my watch (announcing the time in English) and they bopped their heads and waved their arms as if it were a hit song. Then one approached my wife and raised his foot.

The foot had a gash, horribly infected, and whatever happened, had happened weeks ago. Vivienne pulled out her medicine kit and poked a finger deep into the wound to apply Neosporin. It wouldn’t help much, if at all, but it was the strongest salve we had. She gave him socks, as well. Within an hour she was surrounded by crowd of patients with wounds, cataracts, clubfeet––you name it. Neosporin was our only answer for everyone, except one old lady and a baby with terrible eye problems; for them, Sophie and Alex provided an antibiotic eye rinse.

During dinner, the youngest worker on our boat, Issa, a boy of eleven, filled in a coloring book with our kids. The next morning we discovered that no matter his age, while everyone else slept in tents he’d sat blanketed in the boat, waking from time to time to bail. We were told that he was considered incredibly fortunate to have such a job.
On our third day, we reached Dogon country. Situated near the geographic center of Mali, four hundred miles south of Timbuktu, the Bandiagara escarpment rises precipitously from the plain, looking much like Monument Valley. Because of Rudovsky’s book, I recognized the Dogon villages immediately––but Vivienne couldn't understand what she was looking at. The villages blend so completely with the rocks that even large ones disappear into the landscape.

In the village of Sangha, we climbed stony paths past one mud house after another. The roofs are brush or earth, depending on their use, and their beauty explains itself through the accretion of one almost identical unit after another. From time to time we arrived at a town square with a bloated baobab, its fruit hanging on leafless branches, as if it, too, wished to express its beauty thru spareness. In one square, we came upon a togu na (house of words), a celebrated Dogon structure in which men make tribal decisions. Togu na have extremely low ceilings for good reason: as tempers rise, angry combatants jump up, hit their heads on the ceiling, and peace reigns.

That night we stayed in what had been advertised as an auberge du charme, but it had little charm and was overbooked. For eleven of us there were four small cots, plus a bathroom to be shared with the rest of the hotel. A dust storm arose and fifty disgruntled German tourists descended on the place, taking refuge on walkways, roofs, dining room and gardens.

We’d planned to stay three days but decided to move on immediately to our guide’s hometown, Terelli, a traditional Dogon village, which included a group of mud huts they were willing to rent us as a hotel. Ordinarily, travel agencies refused to book them because most tourists find the experience too primitive. But our friends, hip to African travel, taught us to use the mud rooms to store luggage, then sleep on the roof. To gain access to our alfresco bedroom, we had to climb a Dogon ladder, a forked tree trunk with notches for steps. Tricky to learn; but it was heaven to sleep under the million stars of the African sky.

The following day, Immanuel confided that to help fund the local school he’d devised The Ultra Marathon Mali Pays Dogon.  Unfortunately, only two runners had entered: a shy couple from The Netherlands. Jean-Philippe and Arnaud volunteered to pad the field. We hiked to the starting point, marked by an incongruous plastic supermarket banner (where they got it we’ll never know). The Dutch entrants lined up with our friends and nine or ten Dogon teenagers. A speech was given, a gun fired, and off they went. Jean-Philippe and Arnaud returned in less than an hour. The heat had forced them to walk much of the route, they’d gotten separated from the others and had to make their way back to town alone. Eventually Immanuel returned, with no sign of the Dutch couple and no explanation. We imagined the Dutch, stricken with heatstroke, dying beneath a baobab. But Immanuel seemed unconcerned, so we shrugged and returned to our schedule of visiting other Dogon villages.

Vivienne and I couldn’t keep up with our friends’ French and we understood even less of Immanuel’s Malian version of same––which was fortunate, because if we’d understood we were to climb straight up a cliff three hours, then down another two, we might have refused. So, without as much as a bottle of water we started the climb to les trois Yougas––three villages built on a cliff above the Séno plain: Youga Piri, Youga Na, and Youga Dogorou.

Jumping from boulder to boulder, climbing wobbling stone stairways, we ascended a cliff containing some of the most sacred tribal sites, with precipitous drops just inches from the edge of the path. A couple hours in, we rounded a boulder to find ourselves on a flat porch-like area where, surreally, two men served Cokes. At the edge of the rocky shelf, there was a bottomless chasm and across from it, twenty feet away, a thousand-year-old cliff dwelling created by the Tellim, a tribe our guide described as giants who’d moved south when the Dogon arrived. Their former homes dot the sides of the Bandiagara escarpment; the Dogon use some for burying their dead. We sat back, caught our breath, and drank frosty Cokes from a picnic chest in a graveyard.

We continued the climb, sweating hard by now, scrambling up ladders, squeezing through crevasses; finally, we reached the top of the escarpment––a half-mile wide, flat and barren except for a couple of trees, with a hot wind blowing heavily. A thousand feet below, the Sahel, the fringe of the Sahara, sizzled beneath the sun, as far as the eye could see. Those without vertigo stood on the edge of the rock to be photographed. Me, I stood back and took the picture.

The next day our itinerary had to be dropped for The Marathon Awards Ceremony. Two tables had been set up under the supermarket banner; at one, a young man carefully wrote names in a notebook. He insisted Vivienne give him our names, even though we hadn’t run. At the second table, men lined up prizes, fitting reward to accomplishment. The prizes: one t-shirt from last year’s marathon (this was not Immanuel’s first effort); two shirts from the Marathon 2002; four Bic pens; a lighter; and a pile of Dogon handicrafts. Four Bic pens apparently ranked above the Dogon handicrafts––Bic pens being a coveted item in a country where an annual income of  $100 is considered doing well.

 The event was called to order, Immanuel introduced the two Dutch entrants (who had somehow made it thru the race alive) and one could feel the anticipation of the Dogon teenagers: they desperately wanted those Bics. Vivienne’s name was called; would she please come to the front? It was then we discovered that we––luminaries by dint of being from Somewhere Else––were to present the awards. Vivienne stumbled through a garbled congratulation, everyone applauded, and we were overcome by the innocence of the whole affair. Grateful Dogon runners carried off the pens, t-shirts, and lighter, and equally grateful Europeans won the Dogon handicrafts. We ‘presenters’ were given Dogon hats––a multi-peaked cap worn in different ways according to the style and taste of the wearer. As further reward, we were escorted to the Sacred Pond to watch a Sacred Caiman devour a sickly, non-sacred chicken.
That night we were invited to join the town’s New Year’s Eve party. But first, a butcher slit a goat’s throat and bled it beneath our rooftop. Around seven, goat-on-a-stick was carried ceremoniously to the table, roasted, crackling, its stomach cavity filled with couscous. Dessert consisted of Dogon millet cake with grey baobab gravy, to be eaten with the hands. The French had raved about the food on this trip, including the poulet à la  bicyclette (chicken, tough as a bike tire) but even they cringed at the gravy.

After dinner we made our way down the cliff to a flat, hut-encircled area where three hundred Dogon milled about. Adults gossiped, teens flirted, toddlers played tag, and there was an occasional pop! of homemade dynamite (made from a local plant). New Year’s Eve had been celebrated by the Dogon for only eight years and this was to be the biggest yet. The Dutch couple was led to the front, applauded, seated (chairs for non-Dogon only) and the show began.

By now it was totally dark and there were no lights. Several of us wore headlamps but it wasn’t clear if it was polite to turn them on. Drumming began, joined by pipes, then lines of dancers snaked their way through the crowd, girls wearing t-shirts and long skirts, boys white shirts and baggy trousers. The dance seemed strangely formal with nods, dips, and sudden hand gestures set to a complicated rhythm. The girls danced alone, then the boys; finally they merged, embarrassed and giggling, but proud of their cool. We felt honored to be allowed to experience something so uniquely Dogon; still, the dances were long and surprisingly monotonous, so, because we had sleepy children with us, most of our group departed early. A Dogon child of about three sidled up beside me, made his way onto my lap, and fell asleep.

Around eleven, a dance contest began. Homemade millet beer arrived, in a huge gourd from which everyone drank, purposely spilling on each other––a Dogon custom. My wife is not the kind to share a gourd of anything with anyone, but Malian friendliness is contagious and I looked over to find her laughing, blouse drenched. Soon she was competing in the dance contest! Next, dynamite began exploding, a bit too close, and here and there a fight broke out. I began to feel a bit worried. But midnight arrived, horns were blown, everyone was cheering, dancing (me with the sleeping three-year-old) and kissing each other on the cheek––though it seemed to me that the men lined up primarily to kiss my wife and that they were aiming for her lips. Still, it was New Year’s, Mali, le pays Dogon, we’d been drinking some very high alcohol content beer, so who was to worry?

 Then, suddenly, it was over. A man approached and meekly gestured he’d like his child back; the area emptied, family by family, and at the end we stumbled up the rocky cliff in the dark. We were a little drunk and painfully tired, but if we could just make it up the Dogon ladder, we felt we would sleep like logs. But I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about that Sirius dog star: how did the Dogon know about that without telescopes?

The show, Dogon Kayak, will open at Jack Fischer Gallery on 12 September 2015.
Most of the above photos were taken by Vivienne Flesher.


  1. Reminds me of my trip to Kenya. Thank you so much, Ward.

  2. Janet, so glad you got to visit Kenya. I'd love to go there someday.

  3. Thank you Ward! An amazing adventure, I felt like I was walking behind you..
    Congratulations on your show.

  4. Kind of you to write, Tim. Thank you.

  5. wow, I read every word- what an adventure! And now I want to know, how did they know without telescopes...

  6. I love this so much. And your work. I have long been fascinated by the Dogon, their architecture, way of life and star origins...have never been there. Wonderful to find your work reflecting on all this...good luck!

  7. Cecilia: I hope you get to visit someday!

  8. I want to reread this amazing account of your adventures several times... Mesmerizing!

  9. Splendid travelogue, Ward, thank you!