Rare African Dogon mask returns to Paris

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Set to be offered at auction for only the second time in its history on 4 April, this exceptional mask is considered a ‘masterpiece’ of archaic African art

‘This is an incredibly exciting moment for the art market and Paris to witness the return of an iconic masterpiece,’ says Susan Kloman, Christie’s International Head of African and Oceanic Art, of the exceptional Rasmussen-de Havenon Dogon mask, to be auctioned for only the second time in history on 4 April at Christie’s Paris.

Held in private hands for more than 20 years, the mask is an iconic example of archaic art by the Dogon people. This ethnic group is based in Mali’s arid central plains and escarpments near the town of Bandiagara, where it is understood to have been living since the 15th century. The art developed by the Dogon referenced the style of the region’s ancient inhabitants, while also demonstrating a highly innovative approach to form.

Carved in wood, this mask represents a male face below a smaller, female figure that, remarkably for a Dogon mask, is shown kneeling rather than standing. ‘It’s a unique motif,’ Kloman explains. ‘The maker has associated the male and female by carving them in the same voluptuous, stylised manner.’ The female is thought to represent Yasiginè, the first woman, comparable to Eve in Christianity.

‘Together, the man and woman form a primordial couple,’ Kloman continues. The identity of the figures indicate that this mask would have been used as part of a traditional mourning ceremony known as dama, which was ordinarily reserved for those of high social status. Male members of a group known as la société Awa would wear masks to perform a dance, intended to restore stability to a community following death.

‘Its quality is exceptional. Although we don’t know the name of its maker, it’s clear that this mask is the work of a master sculptor’

This unique example is one of the most widely referenced works in studies of Dogon art, having first been documented shortly after its discovery in the 1950s by a network of African merchants. They included Mamdou Sylla in Bamako, who sold the mask to one of the greatest dealers of the period: the Parisian René Rasmussen, whose shop was in the galleries of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

‘Rasmussen was among the earliest collectors of Dogon material, and acquired this piece at a time when Europeans were only just beginning to understand the scope, quality, and iconography of art from the region,’ explains Kloman. So taken with the mask was the dealer that, for a decade, he refused to sell it, finally succumbing to a series of insistent offers from Gaston de Havenon — a collector who was also struck by the beauty of the Dogon mask.

‘People like Sylla, Rasmussen and de Havenon instantly recognised the quality of the Dogon mask,’ says the specialist. First exhibited in 1971 at the Museum of African Art in Washington, the mask went on to be shown worldwide — most recently, in a major retrospective of Dogon art at Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly. De Havenon kept the mask until his death, and it became the most prized item in his collection.

‘This mask has always been highly desirable; the design is completely unique and its quality is exceptional,’ says Kloman. ‘Although we don’t know the name of its maker, it’s clear that this is the work of a master sculptor. This wouldn’t have been the first of his works, but it’s what survives. Thought to date from the 18th century, it is also one of the earliest known examples of Dogon art.’

The mask that most resembles this example in style, known as Le Maître de la maternité rouge, is held in the Louvre — an indication of the importance of this work in the canon of African art. ‘The combination of quality and age, together with original iconography, make this rare mask unforgettable,’ confirms Kloman. ‘For it to return to Paris, where it was first discovered by collectors, is something of a homecoming; it’s a real occasion.’

Edited by Amy Smith (NIAS)