This “black monkey” mask is distinguished by its curved lines, the most pronounced and elongated of which runs from the high, domed forehead to the prognathous mouth, accentuated by a fixed grin.
- Collected by Henri and Hélène Kamer in the Sanga region, ca. 1960
- Hélène Leloup collection, Paris
- Private collection, USA
- Lucien Van de Velde, Antwerp
- Andreas and Kathrin Lindner collection, Munich
- Sale Sotheby’s Paris, 8th June 2007, lot 245
- Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection
- Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.14), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
On the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, in the arid climate of the Sahel, the Cliff of Bandiagara stretches over a distance of 200km. Its steep faces, interrupted by clefts and crevices, house ancient dwellings, granaries, places of worship and burial grounds for men and certain sacred objects. The inhabitants live on the Bandiagara plateau, as well as at the foot of the cliff and on the Séno plain. Sanga, the locality of origin of the “black monkey” mask, is made up of villages and hamlets spread over these three areas.
The geography of the cliffs was conducive to the arrival of populations seeking refuge. The term “Dogon”, which describes this landlocked region and the majority of its inhabitants, refers to the groups of farmers of various origins who, from the 14th century, assimilated or drove out the indigenous populations called “tellem” (lit. “those from before”); the latter were the first in Sanga to use the caves as burial grounds and sanctuaries, between the 10th and 16th centuries. Families of different origins intermingled, becoming unified in a common, original and independent culture. However, the Dogon do not all speak the same language - Geneviève Calame-Griaule lists fourteen dialects1, in addition to the secret language of Sigui shared by the grand initiates of the region. According to myth, the learning of this language by men caused death to appear2.
The Dogon share a common vision of the creation and organization of the universe - a cosmogony -, the important place given to the ancestors and similar religious practices, for example with regard to divination. The celestial deity Ama, the first ancestor Nommo and his descendants, as well as the jackal Yurugu, the incestuous troublemaker3, are among the protagonists of the Dogon religious system, in addition to the serpent Lebe, a terrestrial deity close to both the living men and their ancestors. It is also necessary to emphasize the importance of the village spirits, those of the bush (the gyinu or spirits) and an invisible force, the nyama, which may be lurking and requires constant control through the intermediary of certain specialists (priests, initiates and blacksmiths). Nyama is an energy present in the realm of living things and in supernatural beings. It is dynamic. For men, nyama is most powerful in elderly men4. It can be transmitted both through contact and from a distance. Stones and woodcarvings, such as masks, play a central role in channelling this energy, which may wander after death and become dangerous for living beings.
1 Beaudoin, 1997, p.23; Calame-Griaule, 1965; Vladimir Plungian estimates between 12 and 20 different dialects, Plungian, 2003, p. 65.
The Society of Masks
Showing of masks for a funeral. The Kanaga masks climb on to the deceased’s terrace roof. Mali, Sanga, 02 October 1931. Marcel Griaule © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
The masks are carved away from the village by the initiates of the Awa, the society of masks. The society admits circumcised men and sometimes women, the Yasigine. The society is run and controlled by grand dignitaries, and is organized into a hierarchy according to age group.
In Sanga, in the 1930s, the ethnologist Marcel Griaule observed that the performance of mask rituals could last from a few hours to six entire days, according to the status and number of the deceased to be honoured5. The masks are taken out for funerals and then for the end of the mourning, the Dama, making it possible for the deceased to attain the status of ancestor and for the living to make sure that their soul has departed.
After death, the deceased’s soul wanders about; at the time of the funeral, in the dry season, a few masks ask it to “leave the family home”6. Between three and five years later, the Awa societies from different villages meet for the Dama (lit.: dangerous, forbidden) ceremony, because the deceased’s soul still continues to try and settle in the world of the living. The ceremony alone makes it possible for it to definitively join the world of the ancestors, to bring the mourning to an end and lift the prohibitions weighing on their family. In other words, “the general idea, valid for all masks, is to provide a material medium for the spiritual forces released by death, without which they could become dangerous.7” The Dama is reserved for deceased men, and exceptionally for women, and brings together between one hundred and four hundred masks - this number being reserved for very elderly men8.
A myth or narrative corresponds to each of the masks, along with a specific choreography and order in the procession. The diversity of the characters and animals represented, whose number and form vary over time, reflects the Dogon’s desire to represent the entire world, and particularly animal and human creatures that have encountered death. Marcel Griaule, who published the most important monograph on these masks in 1938, enumerated seventy-eight different characters9. Certain figures, such as the Kanaga mask in the bird category, are more widespread than the “black monkey” mask, which is rarer. The musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac conserves three of them, illustrating different sculptural techniques.
The making of masks
In the majority of cases, the initiates make their masks themselves, the work being carried out collectively in a place of seclusion away from the village. From the design to the dance, the masked role assumed by the initiate is determined by their personality.
The design concerns the sculpted part as well as the clothing made of bark transformed into fibres. The initiate sculptor, who is institutionally anonymous, makes sacrifices of chicken and water to protect himself from the power of the wood’s nyama and of the image that is going to appear10. In case of negligence, the sculptor may call on the guardian of a mask altar to affix an iron hook to the sculpture. The chicken blood, offered as a sacrifice, will then capture the wood’s nyama. For the “black monkey” mask, which has an iron hook of this kind at the top of its head, this protection was evidently required.
Once cut from the trunk, the piece of wood is coated with sesame oil in order to prevent it from splitting. Once it has been carved, the mask is painted. The “black monkey” mask’s colour “is obtained with burnt alumi (Vitex pachyphylla bak) fruit seeds, the charcoal of which is mixed with a decoction of tannin”11. The mask finally takes on its power after the consecration in the presence of a grand initiate, who is able to establish a connection between it and a previous equivalent mask or a wall on which the stylized mask is drawn.
The “black monkey” mask from the Ladreit de Lacharrière donation is distinguished by its curved lines, the most pronounced and elongated of which runs from the high, domed forehead to the prognathous mouth, accentuated by a fixed grin. This curve absorbs the muzzle, stylized by a simple nasal bridge separating the very deep-set rectangular eyes. Its costume consists of short trousers, a shirt, “a collar of long black fibres falling to the knees and bracelets and ankle ornaments of black fibres”12.
Each sculpture, each mask is associated with a garment made of fibres, accessories, one or several songs, a drum rhythm and choreographies, which are an echo of the myth and the figure represented. The showing of the masks, which is always exceptional, gives rise to strong emotions among the villagers of the region who attend the ceremony13.
The masks travel together in a sinuous procession evoking the movement of a snake and dance individually in special areas: in the largest square in the village, the terrace roofs of the deceased and the roads leading to the shelter, as well as when the group moves from one place to another.
The “black monkey” mask wearer does not dance but, leaning on a stick, “stands apart from the dances and sits in a melancholy posture”14 encouraged by the audience who call for him to wake up and start moving at the moment when all eyes are on him. He then takes “several steps, back bent, stops abruptly, feet apart, legs slightly bent and pretends to take his sex in both hands.”15
The shelter and the mask burial ground
After all ceremonies, the members of the Awa keep the fibre costumes and the masks in rock shelters. Safe from humidity, with a stable temperature, the crevices of the cliff provide an excellent solution for their conservation. The fibres are carefully stored in earthenware pots and the masks are conditioned on stones, in order to ensure that they never come into direct contact with the ground. The rock keeps termites away, insects that are particularly partial to wood and fibres. The shelter, which is only open to members of the Awa society, is not closed, but surrounded by obstacles that keep out the uninitiated. These masks are reused for funerals and for “minor” Dama, but new ones are carved for very important Dama, five years later.
“Mask cave”. View of a shelter in which ritual objects and textiles are deposited. Ogol du Bas, Mali, Sanga, 1931. Marcel Griaule © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
On the other hand, when the Awa initiates no longer wish to use a mask, they leave it on the bare ground: “Old masks and unusable costumes are neither burnt nor thrown away, but left in a corner of the shelter or nearby. There they are gradually destroyed, eaten away by worms and termites.”16 Jean Rouch and Germaine Dieterlen add: “In the past, they died of their own accord in the caves; today the Dogon sell them to museums and collectors who have no foreboding of the contagion of death. But it is true that a mask that does not dance, stripped of its scarlet fibres, is no longer anything more than a piece of dead wood.”17
The “black monkey” mask, badly eroded on the skull and back, must have been in the mask burial ground before being acquired by Henry and Hélène Kamer.
Background of the object
The exhibition curator and art historian specializing in Dogon art, Hélène Kamer, subsequently Leloup, was also a particularly renowned dealer in Paris and New York from 1954 to 2005. She made her first trip to Africa in 1952, under her maiden name Hélène Copin.
On her return to Paris, she met her first husband Henri Kamer. Together, they opened their first gallery in 1954 at 90 Boulevard Raspail. In July 1957, they took part in the first international retrospective exhibition of African and Oceanic art displayed in Cannes: 466 objects were exhibited, notably from the collections of Pablo Picasso, Charles Ratton and Baron Lycklama, whose pieces had been rediscovered by Hélène Kamer. In 1957 and 1958, the Kamers embarked on a long journey through West Africa, first to Guinea, then Mali in 1958, where they discovered the Dogon region, and then to Côte d’Ivoire. They acquired numerous objects, always dealing with African art dealers, in particular the major Malian antique dealers Mamadou Sylla, Gouro Sow, Mamadou Diao and Diongassy Almamy, with whom they maintained close ties. Through them, they met the chief of Sanga, Ogoubara Dolo, who became their intermediary for acquisitions. While some sculptures, owned by families, could not be sold, other objects “found in the caves of the Cliff of Bandiagara, did not hold the same importance for the villagers”. In an article in Le Point, in 2018, Hélène Leloup explained: “And it was through these chiefs that the Dogon families sold these objects for money. At nightfall, Dolo would come and get us and we would cross the sleeping village. At his home, he would show us the works brought by the villagers. He was known in all the villages of the Bandiagara plateau and it was he who regulated the trade in the works. Young people who were tempted to steal from the elders - selling off the works in a rush - were very severely punished. The rules were clear, the trade entirely organized between the animist villagers and the chiefs.18”
The knowledge, quality and rarity of the objects offered by the Kamer gallery in Paris earned them an ever-growing and increasingly international clientele. Encouraged by Pierre Matisse and Robert Goldwater, director of the Museum of Primitive Art founded in 1954 by Nelson Rockefeller, they opened a second gallery in New York on Madison Avenue. They advised numerous institutions and famous collectors such as Kirk Douglas, Billy Wilder and Lester Wunderman. In 1965, she set out alone on an important journey that would take her to the Dogon region for the second time, then to Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Burkina Faso. In 1966, she divorced Henry Kamer, and returned to Paris where she opened her gallery on Quai Malaquais with the architect Philippe Leloup who she married ten years later.
She was the scientific advisor for the emblematic “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984. She also actively contributed to the discussion that would lead to the creation of the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in 1998, and was a member of its Acquisitions Committee in an expert capacity until 2018. Her leading publication on Dogon statuary art19 in 1994 proposes a classification of the major sculpture workshops. For the first time in Dogon studies, this survey also emphasized the importance of ancient migrations, detectable in the sub-styles. Her aesthetic, geographical and chronological approach, including the interpretation of sub-styles and the Carbon-14 dating of numerous statues in the corpus, constitutes one of the most important contributions to the art history of the region. In 2011, she was the curator of the “Dogon” exhibition at the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac.
The “black monkey” mask was collected by Hélène Kamer (Leloup) and her husband in the 1960s in Sanga, and then remained in Hélène Leloup’s collection in Paris. She ceded it to an American collector. A few years later, the Antwerp African art dealer Lucien Van de Velde acquired it before selling it to the German collectors Andreas and Kathrin Lindner. Andreas Lindner, a fervent connoisseur and collector of Dogon art, as well as Kuba art (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Inuit art (Arctic Circle) and the art of Papua New Guinea (Oceania), summed up his passion as follows: “This wealth of expression has had a major influence on my thinking, imagination and sense of form”20. Part of their collection, including this mask, was sold in 2007. It was acquired by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, who donated it to the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in 2017.
Selective biography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
BAUDOIN, Gérard Les Dogon du Mali. Paris, Armand Colin, 1984.
BEDAUX, Rogier, “Les premiers Dogon dans la région de Sangha” in BEDAUX, Rogier ed. Regards sur les Dogon du Mali. Leyde, Snoeck, 2003, pp. 37-39.
Calame-Griaule, Geneviève, Ethnologie et langage: la parole chez les Dogon, 1965.
GRIAULE, Marcel, Masques Dogons. Paris, Institut d’ethnologie, 1938.
GRIAULE, Marcel, Dieux d’eau : entretiens avec Ogotemmêli. Paris, Ed. du Chêne, 1948.
Leloup, Hélène, “Les restitutions d’œuvres annoncées ne doivent pas être détournées de leur sens”, Le Point, 19 November 2018.
LELOUP, Hélène, Statuaire Dogon. Strasbourg: Danièle Amez éditeur, 1994.
PALAU-MARTI, Montserrat, Les Dogon. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1957.
PLUNGIAN, Vladimir, “La langue dogon : information générale” in BEDAUX, Rogier ed. Regards sur les Dogon du Mali. Leyde, Snoeck, 2003, pp. 65-67.
Valluet, Christine, Collectors’ Visions. Milan: 5 Continents, 2018, pp. 232-233.
Arts d'Afrique, d'Océanie et d'Amérique du Nord : collection Andreas et Kathrin Lindner vente, [Arts of Africa, Oceania and North America, Andreas and Kathrin Lindner collection sale] Friday 8 June 2007 Paris: Sotheby’s, 2007.
Jean Rouch : une aventure africaine. 4-DVD box set, Editions Montparnasse, Paris: 2010.