Dogon art presents a broad range of object types and styles. Among the human figures alone, some are well over life-size, while others are
barely a few inches in height. Their repertoire of gestures is also varied, and includes figures standing, kneeling, sitting, or riding, raising one
or both arms in a variety of poses, and holding or wearing articles related to their gender, age, occupation, or social status. In style they vary
from full-volumed, sensitively modeled sculptures that are highly descriptive in their details to works that are reduced to abstract geometric
shapes stripped of all but the barest references to human anatomy. The surfaces of Dogon sculptures also suggest that they are treated in a
variety of ways and may therefore have a range of meanings. While some works are smooth, oiled, and polished, others are thickly coated with
sacrificial materials, sometimes to the point of obscuring their sculptural form. The range of styles and imagery seen in Dogon sculpture
suggests that they embody richer and more varied references than the simple identification as images of Nommo would encompass. Even if
the ultimate meaning of Dogon art depends upon the concept of Nommo, as Griaule and Dieterlen and their followers propose, this meaning
can only be enriched by adding to it the many other levels of meaning that arise from the particular settings in which the objects are located.
The Dogon place wood figures depicting men and women on many different kinds of altars, most of which are dedicated to ancestors, either
real or mythical. Although figurative sculptures, called dege, are perhaps the most interesting types of Dogon art, varied in form and rich in
imagery, they are also among the least well documented. Few altars have been described in detail or illustrated; those that have been
described do not suggest any consistent pattern linking a particular style of figure or a specific posture or gesture with any one kind of altar.
There is also little information with which to identify the persons represented by the figures.
Each lineage possesses an altar containing figurative sculpture, which is dedicated to its founders and to subsequent members who have
died, known as vageu. In recounting the myth of the first person to die in human form, Griaule tells of how a wooden sculpture representing the
dead man was carved in order to provide a support for his soul and his vital force (nyama), which were released at his death. The figure was
placed on the man's rooftop terrace along with a pottery bowl for libations. As death spread throughout the land, similar figures and bowls were
placed on altars established by each lineage (Griaule, 1938: 171-72; Dieterlen, 1941: 18,22, 140; also Desplagnes, 1907:273). Photographs
and drawings of vageu altars show rather simplified, even cylindrical, stick like figures leaning against the wall of the shrine (Dieterlen, 1941:
pis. Vb and Vc, fig. 10). Along with the figures one also sees pottery bowls and small cups in which sacrificial liquids are offered to the
ancestors and small notched ladders so the spirits can climb to the rooftop altar; iron hooks (gobo), cylinders of red ocher, iron ornaments,
and pots of roots soaking in water are kept there also and are used in healing. Sacrifices are performed collectively on all these objects at
planting and harvest times, as well as by individuals who have inherited the souls of particular ancestors. The altars are kept in the ginna, or
lineage head's house, of which there are several in each village. An altar can be found on the upper story of the house, in a corner of the
living quarters, in the granary, in the courtyard, or even in a separate structure nearby (Paulme, 1940: 109-11; Dieterlen, 1941: 141-47).
Not all of a family's deceased members are commemorated on the vageu altar. The souls of women who died during pregnancy or childbirth
are considered dangerous, and the forces that cause such deaths are particularly contagious (Paulme, 1940: 531-36; Dieterlen, 1941: 195-
205; Ortoli, 1941). The souls of these women, called yaupilu (literally, "white women"), are enshrined in a separate sanctuary, usually in a cave
outside the village, and are cared for by a priest who is a skilled healer. Such a sanctuary contains the various pottery bowls, wooden sticks,
and staffs found on vageu altars, as well as anthropomorphic wood figures representing both men and women (Ganay, 1941: 132; Dieterlen,
1941: 199, pls. XIIIa XIIIb; Dieterlen, 1981: 16). Every year, sacrifices are made to this altar by those who have been cured of illnesses caused
by the spirits of the dead women, and the figures are completely smeared with the blood of the slaughtered sheep and goats.
While the vageu and yaupilu ancestors are actual deceased members of the family, the binu in whose shrines figure sculptures are also found
belong to the mythic era when humans were immortal (Dieterlen, 1941: 216—27; Ganay, 1942). Binu shrines or sanctuaries are separate
structures built in the courtyard of the ginna. Each one contains an altar on which the wooden figures are found, leaning against the wall of the
shrine. Small bowls, miniature ladders, iron hooks and bracelets, and L-shaped wooden domolo staffs are also placed in binu shrines
(Dieterlen, 1941: 220; Ganay, 1942: 13—14). The sculptures are often mentioned in the myths describing the ancestor's initial contact with his
clan, in which he provides a sculpture along with other objects as tokens of his alliance with his descendants (Ganay, 1941: 114, 123). The
sculptures on binu shrines take a variety of forms and sizes. Although in some cases they appear to be simple cylinders, in others they are
less abstract and have more varied and descriptive human and animal imagery (Ganay, 1942: 13-14; Gnaule and Dieterlen, 1986: 381-85,
484-85). The binu sculptures are said to represent either the binu himself or his first priest (Dieterlen, 1941: 220), but it has also been
suggested that they represent various aspects of Nommo, who is considered the ultimate source of the binu's spiritual force (Griaule and
Dieterlen, 1986: 381).
In addition to altars dedicated to the ancestors, some Dogon figures are placed on altars made to augment and strengthen a living individual's
personal force, or nyama. One such altar is the kutogolo, which is dedicated to a person's own head, ku, the seat of his or her thought and will.
The kutogolo consists of a ball of earth mixed with seeds into which iron hooks, clay pots, and occasional small wooden figures are stuck
(Dieterlen, 1941: 77-79, pi. XIc). The bala is an altar made for a left-handed person, who is believed to have special powers in his or her left
hand. These altars, too, are made of balls of earth into which small wooden figures, some of them with raised arms, are stuck along with iron
hooks and bracelets (Dieterlen, 1941: 83-84, pi. Xld; N'Diaye, 1972: n. 11). Both kutogolo and bala altars are kept in the niches in the facade
ofaginna, or in the corner of a storeroom. Some Dogon blacksmiths and hunters also have individual altars, which often include figurative
sculpture (Paris, Musee Guimet, 1959: 116; Dieterlen, 1965: 15).
Dogon rain-making altars, called andugo, have also been found with figure sculptures. The andugo are the focus of sacrifices to Nommo, who
as Master of Water is manifested in every body of water on earth, including the rain falling from the sky. These altars can be located on a
rooftop terrace, in a courtyard, on the outskirts of a village, or in a separate sanctuary; some are portable and can be carried to fields in
particular need of rain. The altars consist of a pile of ancient stone tools—"thunderstones" believed to have fallen from the sky—into which
iron hooks and wooden figures may be inserted. These figures are said to represent Nommo. Judging from examples in the few published
photographs and descriptions, they vary in size, style, and iconography; in one altar an androgynous seated figure and a figure covering his
face with his hands, as well as several others, were noted (Dieterlen and Ganay, 1942: 30-40, pi. III).
Source: Art of the Dogon, by Kate Ezra
A fantastic resource on the Dogon