Like a gigantic scar between the Niger River and the Burkinabe desert, the Dogon escarpment splits Africa in two. The Dogon sculptures currently on display at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris were originally kept in curious small mud altars placed in the escarpment's innumerable cracks or in the middle of villages on the plateau.

"We have managed to bring together half of the remaining treasures of this civilization," says Helene Leloup, who organized the exhibition.

It is an extraordinary feat, but also a sad one given that the 500,000 or so Dogon people still living in this arid region of Eastern Mali can barely make ends meet.  Heirs to one of the world's most sophisticated, animist cosmologies -- which managed to find a modus vivendi with dominant Islam -- struggle to produce enough onion and millet to survive while a statue sculpted by one of their forefathers has recently been sold for €1.4 million at Sotheby's.

Quai Branly's Mona Lisa, a 10th century pre-Dogon Djennenke statue, was bought in 2002 by the French insurance company Axa for €4 million, and then donated to the museum.

It usually greets visitors at the entrance to the museum's permanent collections but the masterpiece can now be admired at the end of the Dogon exhibition.  In this position, she seems to be blessing her sisters and daughters, the other exceptional pieces lent by private collectors, and which up until now gallery owners and art dealers have only known through reproductions. They complete a selection of pieces from European and American public reserves.

Whether smooth and pure or engraved with various intricate details, the figures are often depicted with their arms extended toward the sky, like the androgynous Djennenke Mona Lisa. Some statues have closed hands: they are thanking nature for the rain and crops it has provided them. Others are hiding their faces: consumed by remorse, these ancestors are showing their regret for not being able to provide for their families.

In the first part of the exhibit, whose topography resembles that of the rugged Dogon plateau, even more surprising than the variety of the statues' attitudes is the richness of forms and styles. This stems from the vitality of the myths and is a sign of Africa's long history and of the diversity of cultures within the same identity.

Stylistic differences also testify to the existence of different artistic temperaments. Since these pieces are not signed but bear obvious specificities, experts have given Dogon artists, as well as their Niongom and Tellem predecessors, names similar to those given to anonymous medieval artists: Master of the slanted eyes, Master of the red maternity, Master of Ogol.

These artists have sculpted the sacred but also the glorious, like hoards of invaders riding on the back of rare horses or extraordinary crocodiles. The solemn beauty of mother figures, symbols of fertility, or of primal couples and mysterious hermaphrodite divinities has made ethnologist Marcel Griaule compare them with the beauty of Ancient Greece statues. The patina that covers them -- black from the coal, red from iron oxide and blood and white from bird feces and grain -- shows the devotion that they inspired.

The fascination of masks

This elementary force and creative energy continues into the second part of the exhibit, which is devoted to masks. Among the 35 captivating masks staring at the visitors from the walls where they are suspended, there is the giant Sirige mask (also called the house mask), the zoomorphic masks depicting birds, monkeys or rhinos, and the Sanga mask adorned with precious cowrie shells.

Andre Malraux used to say that "African masks are not a caption of human expressions but an apparition." He was one of the many westerners who loved this art just as much as the masterpieces of his own culture.

The final part of the exhibit displays a mix of oddities such as metal jewels, wooden locks, granary doors and monumental pillars from meeting houses, objects which have long fascinated French intellectuals, artists and collectors.  

"Dogon" at the Musee du quai Branly (www.quaibranly.fr) from April 5 to July 24

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