World Cultural Heritage from Africa

14 October 2011 to 22 January 2012

More than 500 years ago the West African Dogon people fled their homeland and settled in the forbidding rocky landscape of the Bandiagara Cliffs. There the Dogon merged with the ancient Tellem civilisation that had inhabited the escarpment for centuries. In the spectacular landscape of eastern Mali the fusion of the two cultures gave rise to a distinctive culture. In 1989 UNESCO put both the natural and the cultural heritage of the Dogon – the Bandiagara Cliff and the unique traditions of the Dogon – on the World Heritage List.
More than 270 of the most beautiful objects from the region are presented in the exhibition and provide a breathtaking introduction to Dogon aesthetics. First collected and studied in France, by the 1930s Dogon art began to attract worldwide interest among ethnologists, artists and collectors. In addition to an impressive number of the famous wood statues, the exhibition presents almost thirty different masks as well as a selection of everyday objects such as granary doors, locks, carved boxes, small bronzes and metal jewellery. The exhibition closes with a series of monumental architectural posts and the celebrated larger-than-life Djennenké sculpture from the musée du quai Branly in Paris.
Organisation der Vereinten Nationen für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Kultur und KommunikationDogon – World Cultural Heritage from Africa provides visitors with the opportunity to engage with the Africa that gave rise to the works and offers an insight into the world of the Dogon today. The exhibition also addresses the subject of colonialism and its lasting legacy and sheds light on the first encounter between the Dogon and European explorers. In addition to exquisite aesthetic pleasure, the exhibition seeks to resolve urgent questions about a contemporary approach to African art and to engage in an open dialogue on equal terms.

The Dogon Culture
The area known as Dogon Country is situated in the south-east of the Republic of Mali, not far from the border of Burkina Faso. It is characterised by the spectacular Bandiagara escarpment; a sandstone cliff stretching from south to northeast over approximately 200 kilometres, and between 250 and 400 meters high. The region‟s principal town is the small town of Bandiagara. Over the last thousand years multiple waves of immigration – originating from the city of Djenné or the Mandé region – brought new groups to the area. They mixed with the resident population. Today, Dogon Country has approximately 300,000 inhabitants.
The comparative isolation between the different Dogon villages has given rise to some striking differences. While Dogon is spoken throughout the region, there are dialects that are mutually incomprehensible. This rich diversity is also evident in the different styles of Dogon art which is presented in the first section of the exhibition.
Dogon Country belongs to the Sahel, the southern fringe of the Sahara desert. The cultivation of millet is only possible during the rain season, and more demanding plants only blossom with irrigation-cultivations, often in fields or garden plots, which are fed and cultivated on the bare cliffs.
Traditionally, the Dogon believed in deities of whom a broad mythology is known today. In the early 1930s, the Dogon received a lot of attention thanks to the French ethnologist Marcel Griaule‟s (1898–1956) extensive field studies. He also led some interviews with one of the Dogon‟s old wise men in which he found out a lot about the secrets of their cosmology. The report called Dieu d'eau ("God of Water‟) was released in 1948 as a book and became world famous. In recent decades, many Dogon have turned both towards Islam and Christianity. The old beliefs are being lost more and more, especially with the younger Dogon.
In some archaeological excavations, a culture in the cliffs of Bandiagara was discovered, which was called "Toloy‟, named after their first find spot. These civilisation‟s beginnings date back to between the 4th and 2nd century B.C. Some of the grain elevators – that are still preserved in the cliffs – date back to this early time, and were sometimes used by later populations.
Research at the University of Utrecht proves that a new population took possession of the area. The new inhabitants called themselves "Tellem‟, a Dogon term, which literally translated means "those that we came across‟. The Tellem used what they came across, especially the grain elevators in the cliffs. That is where they buried the deceased people. Some mass graves, with about 3000 individuals, were discovered. Due to some leftover baulks in the cliffs, one can assume that the deceased were pulled in the scarp slope with the aid of ropes. These cliff-burials are still used by the Dogon today.
The exact beginnings of the Dogon are not traceable. Most of the researchers believe that it was during a period of time which can roughly be placed between the 10th and 15th century. Different Dogon-groups fled to Bandiagara‟s virtually inaccessible rocky terrain in order to escape slave trade and Islamic missionary work. The population of the Tellem was soon overrun by these newcomers. Both cultures mixed together intensively, therefore a clear differentiation between the two cultures is very difficult or even impossible for experts to decipher; for example: the distinction between wooden objects in early works of the Tellem and late objects of the Dogon. Different Malian empires exerted influence on Dogon country alternately. From 1883 onwards, French colonial troops began invading the region, which today is known as Mali, in order to absorb it into France‟s vast colonial empire, French West Africa.
In the course of the scientific research, a steadily-increasing interest in artworks and everyday objects has developed among collectors in Europe and North America. In 1960, Mali achieved independence, and Dogon Country became part of the new state.


Weltkulturerbe aus Afrika
Format 32 x 24,5 cm, paperback
416 pages with around 380 colour illustrations
With contributions from Hélène Leloup, Lassana Cissé, Bernhard Gardi, Vincent Mazel, Pascale Richardin, Alain-Dominique Reymond.
German edition / museum edition: 39 €
(No trade edition available.)
The french edition was released by Somogy, éditions d'art, Paris, 2011.

Cataloguecover: Dogon
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  1. Image from ExhibitionPhoto: Dr. Mark Brandenburgh © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH

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