Old Dogon Kanaga Mask

  • Tribe: Dogon
  • Origin: Mali
  • Approx Age: 1850-1900
  • Materials: wood
  • Dimensions cm: 90 long x 15 wide
  • Ref. Number: 0077

A very old Dogon Kanaga mask fragment, the upper and lower arms are missing from this piece but show in black where they once were. The very top of the mask is rounded off and chipped where during the dance of the Dogon Kanaga mask the dancer bends over forward and sweeps the end of the mask across the surface of the floor. This mask has been estimated that it was carved at the third quarter of the 19th century.   Ex French collection.

Dogon Kanaga Dancers:

The “Kanaga” mask can be interpreted in different ways: crocodile, creator genius, but also “bird in flight”. According to the latter interpretation it represents the bird “kommolo tebu” with spread wings and black and white plumage, when after its shooting the hunter carved the first “kanaga”.

Dogon Kanaga dance:

One of the most popular types of masks in the Sanga region is the type known as kanaga. Like other Dogon masks, kanaga masks are worn at rituals called dama, whose goal is to transport the souls of deceased family members away from the village and to enhance the prestige of the deceased and his descendants by magnificent masked performances and generous displays of hospitality. In 1935, French anthropologist Marcel Griaule witnessed a dama ritual in which twenty-nine out of a total of seventy-four masks were of the kanaga type. These masks are characterized by a wooden superstructure in the form of a double-barred cross with short vertical elements projecting from the tips of each horizontal bar.

When the mask is worn, the back of the dancer’s head is covered with a hood of plaited fibre fringe at the bottom edge. The dancer wears a vest made of black strip-woven cloth and red broadcloth strips embroidered with white cowrie-shells; strands of glass and plastic beads dangle from its edges. The kanaga dancer also wears a pair of trousers made of indigo-dyed, strip-woven cotton cloth, over which he ties a long skirt of curly, loosely strung, black-dyed sanseveria fibres and short over-skirts of straight red and yellow fibres. For a traditional dama, the preparation and dyeing of the fibres are undertaken with as much secrecy and ritual as the carving of the wooden mask.

During the time spent by Griaule among the Dogon studying their complex belief system, he was initially told that the kanaga mask represents a bird with white wings and black forehead, but he later came to see this literal interpretation as characteristic of the first level of knowledge, that of the uninitiated. The deeper meaning of the kanaga mask apparently pertains both to God, the crossbars being his arms and legs, and to the arrangement of the universe, with the upper crossbar representing the sky and the lower one the earth. The disparity between these two interpretations illustrates the gaps in our understanding of Dogon art.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)