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Art Collected by the de Menils 50 Years Ago Helps Politically Unstable Mali Today

(L) Crocodile mask (Emina, Anyon) by Dogon peoples, late 19th-mid 20th century; and (R) Figure (Dege), by Dogon peoples, mid 20th century or earlier (detail); on view in "ReCollecting Dogon" at The Menil Collection.EXPAND
(L) Crocodile mask (Emina, Anyon) by Dogon peoples, late 19th-mid 20th century; and (R) Figure (Dege), by Dogon peoples, mid 20th century or earlier (detail); on view in "ReCollecting Dogon" at The Menil Collection.
Photos by Paul Hester

During the '50s and '60s, art coming out of Africa became all the rage, especially with artists and savvy collectors. Museum founders John and Dominique de Menil traveled to countries in Africa and, while they did not visit the Bandiagara escarpment, they did acquire more than 80 works from that region of sub-Saharan Africa.

Sculptures, masks and architectural objects created by the Dogon peoples – the name given to the inhabitants of the traditional villages in present-day Mali – are coming to The Menil Collection in a new exhibit, "ReCollecting Dogon."

Menil's Curator of Collections Paul R. Davis attributes the popularity of these objects to a number of factors. "They were the works that had influenced the modernists during the early 20th century. They were heavily collected by artists in Europe and during the 1950s and '60s, they were also collected by American artists like Barnett Newman and Richard Serra. These were objects that people appreciated across a wide spectrum," says Davis, noting that politics also played a role in boosting the area's significance, including the creation of the Peace Corps and the strategic location of the continent for military operations tasked with combating communism.

The region was once a hot spot for travelers, internationally renowned for its natural beauty and cultural significance. "Since 2012 they've had a hard time because of political instability, so tourism has declined," says Davis. As a way of giving back, the Menil bookstore is selling packages of five postcards. "A percentage of the proceeds will go to help the people in what's called Pay Dogon Country in Mali." In a fitting tie-in, Davis says that the "ReCollecting Dogon" exhibit also contains postcards from Pay Dogon.

(L) Figure (Dege), by Dogon peoples, 17th-early 20th century; and (R) Ceremonial Trough with Horse’s Head and Tail (Aduno Koro), by Dogon peoples, between 1700 and 1820; on view in "ReCollecting Dogon" at The Menil Collection.EXPAND
(L) Figure (Dege), by Dogon peoples, 17th-early 20th century; and (R) Ceremonial Trough with Horse’s Head and Tail (Aduno Koro), by Dogon peoples, between 1700 and 1820; on view in "ReCollecting Dogon" at The Menil Collection.
(L) Photo by Paul Hester and (R) photo by Thomas R. DuBrock

The exhibit also contains necklaces, sculptures and masks. "All of these would have moved. They would have been processed or danced or worn and they would have made sounds," says Davis. "All the objects have this idea of movement or sound behind them."

Davis says that the Dogon peoples are often presented as ethnographic subjects but, in curating this show, he elected to display the mid-century objects alongside works by modern-day artists from the region to illustrate both the historical documentation that led to our understanding of these peoples as well as the complexity of their history.

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The Menil is bringing in contemporary Malian artist Amahigueré Dolo to install his pieces in a separate gallery space. "His work is fantastic," says Davis. "There's wonderful masks that will really capture people's attention and then there are these wonderful drawings that are full of color by Alaye Kene Atô, who has a really tragic story of losing his arm and being able to draw as a therapeutic way of losing his arm."

Rounding out the exhibit are photographs by Walker Evans and Mario Carrieri and funerary masks commissioned by Sékou Ogobara Dolo, plus photographs, documents, sound recordings and films.

There's a public program, "Of the World: In Conversation with Artist Amahigueré Dolo," on February 16 from 7 to 8 p.m.

"ReCollecting Dogon" opens February 3 and continues through July 9, at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, open Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., 713-525-9400, menil.org. Free.

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