In August, 2001, I decided it was time to explore Mali and continue on with my quest in search of the sacred masques. So my daughter, Aissata and I set off on another adventure.
Landlocked in West Africa, Mali is bordered by seven countries, with most of the country located in the south of the Sahara Desert. Our first stop was the capital city of Bamako, an easy, yet richly cultured town with the romantic lure of the Niger River flowing through it. As our dusty 4x4 drove out of Bamako, the spiritually entrancing Malinke voice of Oumou Sangaré played on the cassette player, serenading the village streets lined with the decaying remains of French colonial architecture, blurred visions of history, of times past. Still, the West African culture sang through, as we passed the peaceful movement of the gentle Malians along the way… slow and soulful.
The destination on our mission to photograph the masques: the Dogon Region, located in central Mali. At first site, one is awe-struck by the geographical drama of the escarpment. The Bandiagara cliffs are intimidating, yet stunning, filled with endless historical culture. And breathtaking.
One cannot feel closer to animism than when in the Dogon. It is as if the world has stood still for centuries. Life in its most primitive form. Water, food, sleep, and the spirit world. The quintessence of simplicity.
In the Dogon, if you need water, you must find it. Every night my daughter and I would take a shower together, sharing a bucket of water that one of the village women had carried on her head from the source, barefoot, up the rocky cliff path.
We were honoured to be welcomed and lodged as guests “chez le chef de village”, (the home of the village chief). They had set up mosquito nets on the roof of his hut and we slept under the stars. It was all quite magical, as in the African story books I would read to Aissata when she was younger. But now, we were actually living our own African story.
The most well known and most symbolic masque of the Dogon is the Kanaga. When the Kanaga dances, it appears as a soaring bird, expressing the creation of the world with its central axis that binds the sky to the earth.
One of my favourite of all the Dogon masques is the Masque de Feuilles, which looks like and basically is a walking tree. I came to call it the ‘Tree Masque’. In all its simplicity, it has a purpose as camouflage, assuring protection in the village. As we sat under the nearest baobab (indigenous tree to Mali) to escape the heat of Tireli, the village we were staying in, the guide and the chief of the village conversed in their Dogon dialect, my curiosity grew more and more about this masque while my hand scribbled notes translated from French to English mixed with Bambara (the common language of Mali): "le Masque de Feuilles surveys the village so the people from the other villages will not come to upset them."
Unfortunately it was not the exact time of year for this masque to come out, but with a little determination, tenacity and persuasion on my part, the chief of the village ensured me that if I made the offering of an ox, he could arrange something. The Dogon had presented me with many curiosities, but this proposition raised a question about animism as I tried to relate the idea of offerings to this spirit world. Commerce in the spirit world? In the end, he got his ox, and I got my tree. So the ‘offering’ worked and we were all very happy. The chief of the village, the spirit world and me.
Amiina. (Amen in Bambara.)
Photographs & words: cheryl koralik