Monday, May 1, 2017

Some Thoughts about the Menil Collection's Dogon Sculptures - ReCollecting Dogon - Essay

Dogon peoples. Figure (Dege), 17th-early 20th century.
Mali, Bandiagara Circle. Wood, 21 7/8 ×5 × 6 1/4 in.
(55.6 x 12.7 x 15.9 cm). 3-D Object-Sculpture.
The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester

"...I imagined I was in the presence of beautiful and timeless art.  All hell breaks loose..." (Discusses the Menil Collection's Dogon sculptures in the exhibition ReCollecting Dogon and why it’s inappropriate to judge the aesthetic qualities of the decontextualized objects.)

Some Thoughts about the Menil Collection's Dogon Sculptures - ReCollecting Dogon

In February while previewing the Menil’s exhibition, ReCollecting Dogon, I was drawn to the carved wood sculptures made by the Dogon peoples of Mali. The objects excited me and I imagined I was in the presence of beautiful and timeless art. All hell breaks loose if you do that.

What’s so objectionable about my appreciation of the Dogon sculptures, particularly if I have the sense to discern the formal properties of a three-dimensional artwork?

In the presence of a decontextualized Dogon object such as “Figure (Dege),” it’s not possible for me to know the intentions of its’ Dogon wood carvers, which makes it disrespectful for me to think they could give a shit about making innovative art, or satisfying my aesthetic sensibilities. To remind me of this, Menil curatorial notes contained polite suggestions that it’s inappropriate for me to judge the aesthetic qualities of the decontextualized objects. Yet I found the sculptures lovely. The confusion that resulted inspired this essay, which some viewers might find helpful.

"ReCollecting Dogon" which can be seen through July 9, 2017 offers quite a bit more than the Dogon sculptures from the Menil’s permanent collection. Exhibition curator Paul R. Davis’s intention was to provide a better understanding of the Dogon peoples who live along the rocky Bandiagara escarpment in present-day Mali through a broad presentation of art, artifacts and archival materials. The exhibition includes ritual masks, necklaces and body adornments worn by tribal elders, architectural elements, archival photographs, and ethnographic audio recordings. But this piece is about the sculptures.

To elaborate, it’s unacceptable to classify a decontextualized non-western “tribal,” “primitive” object which was collected by Westerners, for Westerners, as “art.” Focus on its’ formal and aesthetic qualities brings anthropological objection to excluding its’ original cultural context, because the object is more correctly an ethnographic artifact tied to a specific culture, and era, with a particular use and function, which is usually symbolic and ritualistic. The object’s meaning changes though when it is removed from its indigenous context, it loses its religious, ceremonial or mythical function. Once decontextualized it is incorrectly symbolic.

Moved by an object’s beauty and formalist grace, one might imagine transcendent aesthetic qualities, in other words the primitive artwork transcended its’ cultural and historical context to exist beyond the life and era and intentions of its’ tribal carvers. Don’t. Such a thing implies an absolute or universal value judgment from the perch of a superior culture. Only through the hierarchical imperialist belief that the Western canon is preferred, can one have the brilliance to appreciate the object’s artistic grandeur and “redeem” the primitive object by elevating it to fine art status.

Further complicating our view of the objects is the tiresome dogma of market dynamics. In Capitalist societies, cultural values are market driven, and traditional ideologies uphold the class system. The Western art market will classify non-western objects as fine art in order to serve its’ class interests.

It’s a sorry thing, you might think, that we can’t recognize quality and enjoy our cultivated taste and discernment. But that implies universal appeal. The multi-cultural world has no inferior values or traditions, and since Modernism ended, all is relative, and connoisseurship is a questionable notion, it is said. The theoretical consensus is that the primitive tribal object, which would have been pimped around European flea markets as a souvenir on its journey to pleasing us, did not transcend its context, it was simply reclassified as high art for elitist Western collectors and the market. We appropriated the object into our value system, which according to the stale pieties of market predominance is self-perpetuating.

A crazy thing happened while I was looking at a Dogon sculpture. The object called up Picasso’s statement that the primitive sculptures he saw in the Trocadero inspired his first exorcism painting, Demoiselles d’Avignon
. He found “magic” in the sculptures, he said, by which I believe he meant they meditatively directed his consciousness to expanded awareness of death and of course sex. I’ll never believe Picasso created Demoiselles’ Barcelona whores’ African-mask facial features as revenge against women for giving him venereal disease, as some have suggested. It would be misguided if this Picasso association caused you to invest the Dogon sculptures with magical powers.

It’s fine though for a living Malian artist to think like that. Including contemporary Malian art in
ReCollecting Dogon was one of the many ways the Menil rejected the old-timey manner of representing the Dogon peoples with ethnographic displays of decontextualized objects. At the preview we met the Malian artist Amahigueré Dolo (b. 1952) who was having his first exhibition in an American museum. While he discussed his sculptural installation
Components of the World, Dolo told us his name means “the Standing One,” given to him because his parents had six children die before his birth. His installation’s multiple carved stick-like forms represented him and the Dogon peoples, the earth, and god, Dolo said. He pointed to sculptural representations of “the ancestors” and the winged angel or messenger to god. Dolo’s words, though translated from the French, suggested his art was partially inspired by otherworldly notions.

I leave you with the words of one of the Big Daddies of comparative traditions, the brilliant scholar Thomas McEvilley: “In their native contexts these objects were invested with feelings of awe and dread, not of esthetic ennoblement. They were seen usually in motion, at night, in closed dark spaces, by flickering torchlight. Their viewers were under the influence of ritual, communal identification feelings, and often alcohol or drugs; above all, they were activated by the presence within or among the objects themselves of the shaman, acting out the usually terrifying power represented by the mask or icon. What was at stake for the viewers was not esthetic appreciation but loss of self in identification with and support of the shamanic performance.”

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