MORE has been written about the Dogon and their religion, mythology, and art tradition than about any other people in Africa. And yet their remarkable cultural heritage remains shrouded in mystery: After fleeing Guinea to avoid Islamization in the 14th century, the Dogon settled in the remote 2,000-foot Bandiagara cliffs, 200 miles south of Timbuktu in the Sahel region of Mali. Geographic isolation coupled with a harsh landscape and climate has perpetuated subsistence conditions for centuries, but it has not thwarted the development of a rich and complex culture. The Dogon tribe has fascinated the Western world for the last 50 years. The experience of Lester Wunderman, who collected the two sculptures on this page, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is an example. In a Los Angeles art gallery 30 years ago he stumbled upon an unidentified piece of African art.
``I bought the piece for $250 and took it back to my hotel. I didn't sleep much that night,'' he says. ``That piece of art contained the kind of energy I had not experienced before. It wasn't life as represented by sculpture - it was sculpture that created life.''
The Dogon possess a distinctive tradition of geometric abstraction which allows for an unusual diversity in theme and style. Dogon artworks are easily recognizable by strikingly austere and laconic beauty that reflects the western Sudan's barren landscape.
Dogon figurative sculptures range from carefully observed images of men and women engaged in varied activities to daring abstractions based on the human form. The sculpture of the rider, proudly accoutered sitting astride his horse, suggests the status that horsemen held as rulers and warriors in this part of Africa.
The Dogon sculptures are primarily ceremonial objects used on ancestral altars. Sacrificial materials (millet paste, plant juices and oils, burnt herbs, and animal blood) are sprinkled onto the sculptures to induce the liberation of the nyama (life force). Once coated with sacrificial materials, statues tend to lose their original form, but the Dogon regard them as enriched with religious intensity and ritualistic purpose.
Despite years of inquiry and scholarship, the mystique of Dogon art lives on. The disparities between the existing interpretations of Dogon art and the numerous gaps in our understanding of Dogon cosmogony and ritual remain.